Universities to ramp up counselling as depression takes heavy toll on students
● Despite her feelings of inadequacy, sadness and loneliness, the 21-year-old university student couldn’t muster the courage to jump off a building.
She went to her local pharmacy and bought a box of painkillers instead, in the hope that her death by overdose would be relatively painless.
She didn’t go through with it.
The final-year student felt obligated to live because she had signed an anti-suicide pledge — a contract between herself and her university promising that she would not kill herself.
She is among thousands of students at South African universities who are struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts.
They typically find themselves in the depths of despair because of undiagnosed mental illness, financial problems, substance abuse, academic pressure or confusion over sexual orientation.
Universities, concerned about the poor state of mind of their students, are beefing up their counselling services.
At the University of Cape Town (UCT), seven “unnatural deaths” were reported in 2017. The year before that, three were recorded.
The university said it could not conclusively confirm that these were suicides but it fears some might have been.
“We must reiterate that we are concerned that the number of deaths at UCT in the past years may have included suicides,” said UCT spokesperson Elijah Moholola.
He said the Student Wellness Service had employed extra psychologists. The team conducts more than 5,000 counselling sessions a year.
The University of Pretoria has had one death by suicide this year, and was critical of claims on social media that there have been four.
The University of Johannesburg (UJ) said the cause of the death of one its students in August “is yet to be determined”.
“UJ is acutely aware that our students are often under immense pressure. At times these difficulties may become overwhelming to such an extent that students may consider desperate measures,” said a spokesperson.
Both universities said they had support mechanisms in place to help students.
Wits University has established an extended counselling network “to deal with the demand for counselling services”.
The South African Union of Students, which started a 24-hour national helpline for students, spoke of “slow changes to the support system against a rapid increase in suicide attempts or eventualities”.
Spokesperson Thabo Shingange said the call centre received an average of 15 calls a day, mainly from female students battling with anxiety and depression.
At times … students may consider desperate measures