Uni­ver­si­ties to ramp up coun­selling as de­pres­sion takes heavy toll on stu­dents

Sunday Times - - News Sexuality - By SUTHENTIRA GOVEN­DER

● 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

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