In recent weeks, as has been the pattern in recent years, it has been deeply distressing and saddening that students at a number of universities took the decision to end their lives. This has led to universities in South Africa increasingly having to confront student suicides, and to focus their energies on the mental wellness of students and staff.
According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), suicide is the second leading cause of death among university students, after accidents. Studies further suggest that as many as 20% of university students have suicidal thoughts at some point during their university career. Studies suggest that student suicides and mental health challenges are on the increase globally.
Having had to deal with student suicides in my own university, one cannot help but wonder what leads to a seemingly “together” student making the decision to end their life. What are the triggers? How do we identify students at risk, and put the necessary support systems in place, and walk the journey towards a better place with students? What kinds of campus-wide interventions are required, and how do we take these interventions to scale, to ensure that no student in a student population of 37,500 students is left behind?
When we lose a young life, it is often easy for the media, politicians, commentators, and others to heap the blame on teachers, universities, families, partners, friends and others who “should have done more”. The reality is that dealing with mental illness and suicide is much more complex and requires multiple interventions at various levels in society.
It is widely accepted that the context and environmental factors play a key role in the mental well-being of young people. Our South African reality is tough, and students are faced with a myriad of challenges. These include poverty and inequality, high levels of violence and crime, changes in support structures or the loss of social support systems, heightened awareness of sexual identity and orientation, and of course, the high academic demands in a very competitive environment.
Students who have never failed in their lives, must deal with failure while carrying the hopes of a family or a community. Student years are also a period of great change, and require significant adjustment to a new environment, and to new ways of being. For many students, the time away from home and being at university, means that they may be offered the opportunity to confront past pains. These include abuse, neglect, and unresolved traumatic experiences.
How does a student confront all these changes in their lives, and deal with the complexities of modern society, under the glaring eye of social media? Social media plays an important role in the lives of youth today. The worlds of Instagram, Facebook and other such platforms often portray an illusionary picture of prosperity and happiness.
Online friendships and communities are built on the successes portrayed, the number of likes one obtains on posted pictures or status updates and how trendy they are perceived to be. In this digital reality, no one seems to be struggling, and certainly no one is battling with depression and other forms of mental illness. It is a world of judgement, a world that feeds stigma. The image portrayed online is often very different from the reality of the struggles that everyday life may bring. Students may often not reach out for help as they feel that they may be a burden to others or may be perceived to be weak/needy.
Addressing this issue will require careful consideration of the factors that inform a student’s decision to commit suicide and lots of empathy. These considerations must include factors at university level, those presented by the world beyond, and the interplay between these factors. Traditionally, universities have focused their energies and scarce resources on the academic project.
University support structures have also often relied on providing basic interventions, depending strongly on referral support systems beyond the university like families, the church, NGOs, and the public and private healthcare systems. These often depend on how resourceful students are and the networks that they have within or beyond the university. The reality is that not many students have these networks, or access to resources. Where facilities are available, these are often oversubscribed or come at a great cost.
University campus counselling facilities are faced with a sharp increase in students seeking assistance. This is a positive sign – many students are seeking help. However, our concern must be with those students who are passive in seeking help, those who may find themselves in a desperate position, where they see no way out and opt to end their lives. How do we reach them? Increasing the capacity of campus counselling services may be part of the response, but not the only response. Universities must grapple with what it means to create inclusive, caring institutional environments where the well-being of each member of the campus community, is of utmost importance.
This requires a new approach or perspective that champions reaching out for help. A university-wide approach is needed that must include all stakeholders, including students and experts, who must join the conversation and actively commit to being part of the community-wide solution. Strategies must consider the broader context, and must also include helping students develop their coping skills, learning how to build resilience and emotional intelligence. For universities, this may require a new way of being.
Beyond the university, we must all commit to building a more caring society. Government, business, civil society, families and friends must join hands in realising that this is essential if we are to build strong communities. I really do believe that if we do not commit to working together towards addressing the mental well-being of students, and putting an end to student suicide, our collective futures may be compromised. DM
Jerome September is the Dean of Student Affairs at the University of the Witwatersrand.