File picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA
File picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA

Tragedy grips Wits university after three suicides in three weeks

By Lesego Makgatho Time of article published Jun 27, 2021

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Three Wits University students have died from suicide in the past three weeks.

A statement released by the Wits University’s Student Representative Council highlighted the issue of mental health and its impact on the student body.

The SRC attributed the suicides to the pressure placed on students by the university. Wits SRC president Mpendulo Mfeka said the misconception was that these students took their own lives because of academic pressure.

“This is not the case with this particular three as they were doing quite well academically. The LLB final year student had marks way above 70%, the BA dramatic arts student was in the final year, and the third student was doing a Master’s in pharmacy. They were doing well and they were well funded,” Mfeka said.

He said the problems they were facing were deeper than academic issues.

“The expectations on students, especially in this pandemic, are ridiculous. Very few students, particularly students of colour, are able to cope during this pandemic.

“This is not taken into account, first by lecturers and secondly by university staff and management. In a Covid-19 pandemic, we have loadshedding and very few systems are put in place to ensure that we are all running at the same pace.”

Mfeka said the head of the accounting department sent out an email a week or two ago urging students to ensure they have proper network connectivity and access to electricity.

“We get a lot of complaints from students. The head of the accounting department told students that the exam will be written at a particular time at a certain pace and should you disconnect, for whatever reason, you will be disqualified from the exam.

“The university needs to be considerate as there are many students from rural and township areas who do not have stable connections to electricity,” said Mfeka.

The SRC has now asked for students to be given some leeway.

“If any student is disturbed during the exam period because of electricity or whatever difficulty they face, that student needs to be given 24 hours to report that they’ve encountered a challenge and that student should be granted the opportunity to continue with the exam.”

While students are mostly studying remotely, a few do go to campus, depending on the faculty and programme they are enrolled for.

The Sunday Independent this week visited the university’s Braamfontein and medical school campuses to gauge students’ reactions to the recent suicides.

Samantha Piers, a fourth year medicine student, said she heard of one student who had committed suicide two weeks ago.

“It’s not always that you’re not doing well in school that you’d want to take your own life. Sometimes it’s the insurmountable pressure to keep those grades up that overwhelms us.

“There are many underlying issues that students deal with back home. The mental health of students needs to be given serious attention,” said Piers.

Echoing her sentiments was another student, Thando Maumela, who is doing her Honours in medical cell biology.

She said the pandemic had made it even more difficult for students to cope with their studies.

“I am still shaken from the long exam I wrote last week. I didn’t sleep. We had loadshedding in between which made it difficult to get through the exam but I managed to get through it,” said Maumela.

Students said that they felt the mechanisms in place – such as counselling and mediums to bring awareness about mental health – were not effective in helping them deal with the pressures they faced.

Wits spokesperson Buhle Zuma confirmed the recent suicides and that these students were doing well academically and did not seem to be in financial distress.

Meanwhile, senior university officials met with the families of the students, who have asked for privacy during this difficult time.

“The incidents took place at off-campus residences, and counselling and other services have been offered and/or provided to their families, friends and fellow students,” Zuma said. On why the students committed suicide, she said: “We do not know why these students took their own lives. What we do know is that the pandemic is affecting our physical, emotional and mental health in many ways.

“Mental health, in particular, is a major challenge for staff and students, and broader society during this pandemic as can be gleaned from the recently released report by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and Higher Health study assessing student well-being.”

Zuma added that Wits had put in place comprehensive programmes to try to address these issues, which have been communicated to staff and students numerous times through multiple platforms.

The Dean of Student Affairs was said to be also in regular communication with the SRC to look at ways to ensure that students reached out timeously when they need help.

“As far as assessments are concerned, the majority are being held online. They take multiple forms, depending on the nature of the programme or course, the faculty and academic requirements, and the lecturer.

“Wits has reasonable policies in place and always does whatever it can to ensure students’ success. One example is that the university has agreed for students who have difficulty studying at home to return to residences on social justice grounds, so that they have access to basic services, data, food, etc,” Zuma said.

Dr Eileen Thomas, a psychiatrist at Akeso Clinic in Milnerton and a researcher at Stellenbosch University, said health disorders manifest in different ways.

“Symptoms include low mood and anxiety, as well as thoughts and behaviours that impact negatively on one’s well-being and functioning. Students may become withdrawn, stop participating in school activities or struggle academically.

“If untreated, secondary complications can arise, such as dropping out of school, the entrenchment of unhealthy behaviours like cutting or extreme weight gain or loss, and these may persist when unattended,” said Thomas.

She added that South African students’ lives changed in unprecedented ways when lockdown measures closed schools and reconfigured the academic year at universities.

Overnight, students had to embrace online learning, adjust to challenges brought on by the pandemic, while dealing with things like loss of jobs, financial stress and load-shedding.

She believed that little was being done with regard to mental health awareness in the country.

“People living with mental illness in this country are still keeping quiet and living in the shadows due to the stigma surrounding mental illness.

“October is Mental Health Awareness Month.

“The majority of South Africans probably do not know that there is a whole month dedicated to mental illness and making the public aware of how it affects everyday life.

“Ignorance is bliss, and we choose not to know about it and how these different illnesses affect our peers and those around us.”

Thomas stressed that mental illness does not discriminate and can affect anyone during their lifetime. To improve mental health, she advised that a holistic approach be taken – including the physical, spiritual, emotional and social health aspects of life.

“Reach out and ask for professional help as soon as you notice changes in your behaviour or mood.

“Family members can help by just being supportive and showing genuine interest in the individual’s life and showing compassion and empathy.”

Wits provides individual and/or group counselling which is available at the Counselling and Careers Development Unit via [email protected] and the Wits Student Crisis Line on 0800 111 331 (24/7 toll-free).

A full list of services available to students is available at www.wits.ac.za/ students

Staff members and their families can make use of Kaelo’s counselling services (at no cost) by calling 0861 635 766, dialling *134*928, sending a “Please call me” to 072 620 5699, or emailing [email protected]

The Sunday Independent

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