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Poverty, hardships increase mental distress at varsities

The University of Pretoria Welcome Day. Picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency (ANA)

The University of Pretoria Welcome Day. Picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Feb 19, 2023



Johannesburg - As the year begins, it is marked by hordes of students that are flocking back to educational institutions across the nation, some making their maiden visits.

As is typical, the beginning of the year has already been characterised by protests over student housing, among other issues, at various tertiary institutions, including two prominent Western Cape universities. A Student Representative Council member at the University of Cape Town (UCT) attributed the protests to issues including fee blocks and the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

At UCT, protests by students rendered the road inaccessible. At the University of the Western Cape (UWC), students protesting this week were calling for a concession for students to be registered irrespective of their historical debt. This is a truly distressing start to the year for young students, especially first- years embarking on their academic journey.

Situations such as inadequate and disorganised student housing have been a ubiquitous challenge in recent years. Many students have recounted walking unfamiliar areas late at night, and others sleeping outdoors, while awaiting for their student housing complications to be resolved.

The unfolding events reminded me of an unforgettable experience on joining a new residence at UCT several years ago, where I would have been stranded had I not been assertive and insistent. In a country with a high unemployment rate and poverty levels like ours, the yearly rate for university accommodation, that averages between R46 000 and R149 000, is simply unbearable.

NSFAS, which budgets R80 billion a year for tertiary education funding, offers exactly R45 000 for average student accommodation, and R65 000 for NSFAS-approved private accommodation. The reality is that many students who go to universities are from distant towns, some from other countries.

Additionally, most students are from poverty-stricken and working-class families. Students that are funded by NSFAS are responsible for the settlement of the remaining amount between the cost of the residence and the bursary granted. Understandably, a lot of students were hesitant about this payment, as it would hinder many from settling their already steep registration fees.

The common issue with the student housing crisis is that countless students receive a confirmation of their accommodation, but the residence has limited placements. Others who do not yet have confirmation often arrive to attend to the issue in person.

Other issues such as funding caps (students not being allowed registration due to unsettled fees), debt acknowledgement that would leave the student contractually obligated to payment settlements, and those who are stranded while awaiting approval of their funding applications are victims of a “first come, first served” allocation system.

This is not only emotionally taxing but can also result in real trauma. Many students are in new areas and are easily targeted in dangerous situations. This can result in huge mental cases, and cause a decline in the students’ educational trajectory and their overall well-being.

A 2022 study showed that mental distress is higher in the student population than in the general population. A study of students at four Eastern Cape universities showed 41.8% of males and 58.2% of females suffered from mental distress.

The issue of mental distress among students is prevalent across many international institutions, with Tanzania reporting mental distress levels among students of 70%, and Saudi Arabia’s at 71.9%. Studies have also reported that many students turn to drug use, eating disorders, and binging as coping mechanisms.

Additionally, lack of community interest in their field of study, and financial woes exacerbate this issue. Many students contend with struggles outside of their academic spaces, such as familial life, mental illnesses in families, rigid schedules, and lack of social support.

These challenges can lead to long-term health hazards, such as anxiety disorders, depression, impaired cognitive functioning, learning disabilities, and increased chances of substance abuse. It is incumbent upon the universities and the Department of Higher Education to ensure that these reoccurring challenges are mitigated and alleviated promptly.

It is also the onus of the Western Cape government and all the other provincial legislatures to ensure that mental health facilities are supportive, stable and transparent.

Mental health already has a negative connotation in sub-Saharan Africa. Although mental wellness has only recently come into public discourse, it is fanned by societal ills such as gender-based violence, institutional subjugation, higher rates of violence and overall endangerment in society.

Furthermore, mental health institutions such as Valkenberg Psychiatric Hospital in Cape Town have a terrible reputation for inhumane patient treatment, which further entrenches the negative connotation of mental health. Many psychiatric institutions do not have enough trained personnel.

They have inadequate or non-existent insurance to cover the costs, and they lack specific treatments, which deters people from seeking out help and worsens existing mental health issues, particularly among students. The negative stigma of mental health is not only pervasive among the youth, but also the older generations.

Zandile Mafe, the man accused of burning a section of the Parliament building, has unsurprisingly refused to be admitted to the notorious Valkenberg. When psychiatric institutions such as these are of ill-repute, they are actively opposed.

They become figures of a type of repression and endangerment. Many university students have been known to be immediately sent to Valkenberg when they are financially or academically challenged, or their behaviour is questioned.

However, these issues can be mitigated if care is undertaken with more seriousness, especially by the heads of psychiatric institutions.

There needs to be way more availability and accessibility of counselling and psychiatric services in South Africa.

There also needs to be more education about mental health illnesses and prevention in schools, community centres and in community discourse. Ultimately, these institutions must be reputable, and accessible, and maintain acceptable standards and practices so that those who need their services do not dread going there.

Public psychiatric institutions in particular are run and operated by taxpayers’ money, meaning we the people are shareholders in these institutions, which are obligated to ensure humane services centred on dignity and integrity.

We live in a democracy and we need to hold the government accountable for upholding public services to the letter of the Constitution. Provincial institutions and the national government cannot continue to turn a blind eye to unacceptable and below-par services. That is unsustainable.

Countless citizens live in poverty and are illiterate, and depend on public institutions to provide reputable, accessible and civilised services. This is particularly pertinent because we come from a history of inhumane systems during apartheid, structures and institutions that overlooked the physical and psychological wellness of the majority of the country.

Many students begin university, but only a few complete the journey and graduate. We need to promote mental health and well-being among students, and the nation as a whole. Mental distress debilitates one’s physical, emotional, and mental well-being, and overall, inflames the conditions for other mental health issues.

The government claims to be democratic yet they are dropping the ball on mental health and human rights in psychiatric institutions.

The principles of this country are founded upon human rights and entail the protections and standards of mental health care users. The government needs to urgently intervene at a national level. They must be steadfast in ensuring human rights in democratic South Africa are protected, and finally, ensure that we do not proliferate the socio-economic load that we already bear.

* Makoe is an MA (Ethics) student at the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice at UWC. She is also a gender activist.