‘No one should suffer in silence’

Posted on October 04, 2018

Dr Matete Madiba, Director of the Department of Student Affairs, offers advice on how staff can help students, their colleagues, and themselves, in times of distress.

As examination season draws close, it’s extremely important for staff members to be extra-sensitive to the mental health needs of students and colleagues during this stressful time. The University of Pretoria recently lost a student, and a former student, both of whom sadly died by suicide. In the wake of this loss, and with World Mental Health Day being commemorated on 10 October, Tukkievaria chatted to Dr Matete Madiba, Director of the Department of Student Affairs, to gain insight into what staff can do and should do to help students and each other cope with mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, extreme stress or other psychiatric or psychological issues.

What are some of the support systems in place for students to access support for mental health difficulties/challenges at UP?

There are a variety of services which students can access. UP has a Counselling Unit staffed with qualified psychologists and interns where students can be referred for help. The UP Careline, operated by SADAG, is a toll-free line which staff and students can access 24/7. There are partnerships with a number of NGOs to expand the capacity to cater for student needs. Each faculty has a faculty student advisor, and in some cases more than one; these staff members provide academic advice and care to students and work closely with psychologists to refer students where necessary.

In addition to psychological support, what other care services are available to students?

Mental health issues do not occur in isolation. The nurses and medical doctors at the student health clinics play a critical role in attending to health needs of students in a holistic manner. The University clinics provide primary health care to students, but also provide a significant amount of counselling to patients. On the preventative side, the health clinics run a number of awareness and education programmes in support of mental health. The Disability Unit provides support to students with disabilities, and pays attention to their mental health needs. The Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender through their advocacy and education programmes fills a special gap in terms of covering issues around sexuality and mental health.

Given the state of public hospitals and the scarcity of psychological and psychiatric services in the public sector, how does UP ensure that students who have no access to medical aid are helped?

The University has a public-private partnership to further expand our services and improve on our capacity to help staff and students. This works in cases of after-hour emergencies when students who do not have private medical aids require crisis intervention. Akeso will send a response car to collect them from the University. They will be transported to the hospital, where they will be assessed by a psychiatrist on duty. They may be sedated when required and kept overnight or for up to two days at no cost to the University. They may be transported to Tshwane District Hospital the following day during working hours. This avoids the student having to wait for hours without being attended to when public hospital is on skeleton staff.

Does UP provide support to students to support each other, and refer them to the appropriate services offered by UP? Tell us a bit about these platforms.

UP has adopted a targeted approach to peer helpers, and recruited students are being trained to provide support to peers in specific projects. Student leaders in various structures play a significant role in looking after the needs of their constituencies and in assisting their peers to access available services. During August, the seminar hosted by the SRC focused on gender-based violence and mental health issues featured prominently in the discussions. A student society recently hosted a successful wellness day, and it was a powerful demonstration of how student societies can play a role in ensuring that students get correct information about how to access available resources and that they are educated in terms of how to ensure good mental health. It is expected that all societies will take on the responsibility of hosting such events, and take the lead in drive the education and raise awareness amongst students. The residences have wellness portfolios in their house committees and these have to pay special attention the health needs of their house mates.

On an administrative and institutional level, what systems are in place to open up discussions on mental health issues facing staff and students?

The Department of Student Affairs convenes a safety committee, made up of representatives from various departments in the university. The committee, among others, scrutinises policies and procedures that are in place and mental health issues feature significantly in these discussions and operations. This team has recently published an infographic to capture all services available, with contact details. The committee has recently extended membership to a group of students, to offer their input in the processes of ensuring safety on UP campuses. Since gender-based violence and rape culture have such an impact on mental health, the committee pays special attention to these areas.

What can we do to make UP a more caring environment and community for everyone?

In 2014, a group of students who lost a friend to suicide initiated a project which they named ‘How are you?’.  The students felt that if everyone at UP, both staff and students cared enough about each other to never neglect the opportunity to stop and ask each other “How are you?”, a lot of mental distress could be alleviated. This is what ubuntu is about. They believed that caring for each other in that way will allow for others to be confident and courageous enough to open up and talk about the issues that trouble them, and in that way they can be pointed in the right direction for assistance and on time. The DSA is in the process of reviving the project to make sure that the University becomes a caring community. Everyone should take the responsibility to care about the welfare of the other and take time to ask the question, ‘How are you?’.

Aside from students with congenital clinical or pathological mental health conditions, in your experience, what have been other common causes or issues that have led to mental distress among students, and how can we help?

In some cases, the mental distress is caused by the lack of basic needs like food, accommodation, and tuition fees. Part of being a caring community means that those with such needs should be pointed to the right places where they can receive the help they need. The university has SNAPP, a programme to make sure that no student suffers from extreme hunger whilst on campus. Identifying students who are without accommodation and those who need access to financial aid on time and making an effort to assist them does not only alleviate mental distress, it is one of the major ways to enhance student success and to lower the dropout rates and non-completion of studies. In one of the projects piloted by DSA on ‘learning communities’, it was inspiring to see how first year students formed a sense of community within the groups and how they became innovative in using peer support to make sure that each member was supported to access services needed as they embraced the call to graduate together on time.

What would you like staff and students to always remember about dealing with mental health conditions?

If all members of the UP community, student leaders, mentors, tutors, lecturers, support staff, could take time to ask the question, “How are you?”, many more members of our community can be spared the burden of carrying their mental distress on their own. Asking that question may open up opportunities for others to talk about their challenges, and that is the first step in accessing help. Everyone in the UP community should make sure that they are aware of all the available services and should serve as points of referral whenever there is a need. No one should suffer in silence and all in need should be able to access help on time.

- Author Shakira Hoosain

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