Durban - Esther Novukela battled chronic depression and anxiety throughout her studies but persevered and graduated with a Master’s degree in Education cum laude from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).
Novukela said people should not be afraid to seek help from mental health professionals.
“Let’s talk more openly about mental illness. Too many lives have been lost because of depression. Let’s break the stigma,” she said.
Novukela said her battle with mental health issues began in 2004 after the death of her father.
“After the violent death of my father in 2004, I suffered with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and night terrors, and was later diagnosed with severe anxiety and chronic depression,” she said.
She said completing this degree sometimes seemed like an impossible task.
“I would often become so anxious that I would faint unexpectedly, and was also admitted to hospital twice due to illness caused by the pressure of my studies,” said Novukela.
Novukela said she was hospitalised in 2022 after fainting and hitting her head on her bathtub, causing a concussion. Her doctor ordered her to rest and not work on her laptop for a week.
“The incident happened during the most critical time of my chapter writing. The health setbacks made me question if I would complete the degree in time,” she said.
However, she said while attending a writers’ retreat hosted by the Research Office of the College of Humanities at UKZN, she found solace and comfort with other researchers who motivated and encouraged her to continue with her studies.
“We advised each other. Suddenly, this lonely journey of writing a dissertation felt a lot less daunting and isolating. The experience helped me to complete my thesis on time,” she said.
The university said Novukela’s research was on the experiences of male Foundation Phase (FP) teachers in a field dominated by women, which showed that constructions of masculinity in male FP teachers influenced their decision to continue teaching in the phase or to leave to pursue other career opportunities, such as teaching in the Senior Phase (SP).
Novukela dedicated her degree to her mother.
“My mom was unable to finish high school and dropped out because she was burdened with household chores, which reflects gender inequality. I became increasingly interested in investigating the way in which gender stereotypes are reinforced and possible ways new gender norms can be formed,” she said.
Her advice to other scholars is to choose a research topic that gets them fired up.
The university said Novukela plans to continue her research in the area of gender studies and mould her learners in the classroom.