Mental Health Awareness Month: UP Student Counselling Unit makes headway in time of heightened anxiety

Posted on October 11, 2021

As part of the commemoration of international Mental Health Awareness Month in October and World Mental Health Day on 10 October, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the mental health theme for 2021 as ‘Mental health care for all: Let’s make it a reality’.

The University of Pretoria’s (UP) Student Counselling Unit (SCU) in the Department of Student Affairs is committed to realising this goal among its staff and students, and over the past two years has seen great success in its endeavours to raise the level of mental healthcare and awareness in the University community.

The SCU’s intention is to foster emotionally self-reliant young adults, and give them the problem-solving and resiliency skills that they need to lead a fulfilling life. Staff and students alike can help to develop a culture of care, build resilience and the mental skills to cope with stress, manage university life optimally and bring an end to discrimination against people who profess their mental health difficulties.

Mental health is not simply the absence of mental illness; it implies that you understand your strengths and weaknesses, and have the inner resources or can access outer resources to solve problems that come your way. Often, these skills are not taught, which means we must develop those “mental muscles” and become fit to face the challenges that life brings our way.

The past two years have been psychologically challenging, with high levels of anxiety and depression being reported in society at large and in student populations specifically. Students have been subjected to isolation, trauma and loss, and have had to manage their studies online in often trying circumstances. As such, the SCU has been working to address this heightened sense of anxiety in a variety of innovative ways.

Since lockdown in March 2020, the SCU has been running an online mental health clinic, the focus of which has been on strengthening the resilience of students. A mental health clinic should go beyond therapeutic services to also offer preventative care, which is why the SCU developed several mental health products for students to access in their own time, for their specific needs.

Self-help material that addresses issues such as stress management, relationship management, planning online studies or balancing work and family life was made available on the SCU’s website. A series range of podcasts was also developed where SCU staff and, on occasion, invited guests discuss topics like anxiety, depression, creating a routine with online learning, learning self-compassion and becoming aware of gender-based violence. Our podcasts have been well-visited and have enjoyed listenership both locally and abroad.

Another innovative feature was the introduction of the SCU-Bot – or SCU-B (“Scooby”) – a mental health chatbot that was developed in collaboration with Information Technology Services at UP. SCU-B is permanently featured on the student portal landing page and serves as an information centre for mental health content. The chatbot is currently assisting with issued related to depression, anxiety and lifestyle management, and other relevant topics – such as substance abuse and gender-based violence – will become part of the chatbot’s services in future.

The SCU also offered monthly webinars and online workshops on subjects such as adjusting to university, test and exam preparation, self-esteem and identity. Residences became aware of these workshops and approached the SCU to offer this service to groups of students. We believe this played a role in opening the mental health discourse on campus, destigmatising mental health and assisting to combat the isolation students were experiencing during lockdown. Faculties are also booking online webinars for their students, and we hope to extend this exciting service further.

Together with our mental health partner, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), online peer-to-peer support groups were initiated, whereby students could support one another with mental health issues under the leadership of a SADAG counsellor. Some students even showed an interest in becoming peer support group leaders, and we were encouraged to extended mental healthcare further into the UP community. There is now the option of a daily peer support group and a Saturday group for Health Sciences students, whose programmes do not allow for weekday sessions.

SADAG counsellors also provide informal telephonic counselling to students, and this UP careline (0800 747 747) is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It also serves as the SCU after-hours crisis line.

Formal therapy has been ongoing throughout lockdown, with students accessing this service in high numbers. Online services have helped to eliminate the barriers of seeking mental health treatment. Simply by sending an email to [email protected], students can request a booking with a psychologist for therapy or an assessment where indicated. Even though our focus is increasingly on mental health prevention, formal therapy and assessment are well-established services. At the conclusion of therapy, we encourage students to join a support group and extend the benefits of their individual therapy to the broader UP community. In this way, we hope to close the circle: those who were seeking assistance are now able to also extend support.

It is important to remember that, like with our physical health, our mental health is our responsibility. We hope that the UP community will join us in helping students to become goal-oriented individuals with healthy mindsets.

Dr Hanlé Kirkcaldy is the Head of the Student Counselling Unit at the University of Pretoria.

- Author Dr Hanlé Kirkcaldy

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