An Open Letter to UP: why don’t you care about our mental health?

Kemelo Sehlapelo believes the University of Pretoria (UP) needs to do more to look after the mental wellbeing of its students.

On the 18th of October 2017, I had made my mind up that I was going to give up. I had decided that this was it, another suicide attempt. I say “attempt” because I knew deep down, I was hoping for a miracle; for someone to stop me and look at me and ask, “Hey, are you doing ok?” and I would collapse into their arms, saved once again from myself.

That day, a security guard was that miracle. And I cried and cried and cried. Tomorrow and for the rest of my life I will have to continue seeing a psychiatrist and a psychologist. I have medical aid. I am black. I am an artist and naturally melancholic, an old soul, says my mother. I was saved from myself. But what about the rest?

The university environment is a complex one for a young mind. A person can easily become controlled by the need to prove themselves, to prove their worth through by their degree. For most black students (who are often the first in their families to attend tertiary institutions) there is an extremely heavy burden to acquire a degree in the hopes of providing for the family financially, all the while having to pay off student loans.

For most students, the pressure to graduate in record time while having a social life, looking good, living on a student budget and wanting to feel put together creates bad new habits during the varsity years, such as binge drinking, smoking and an increasing decline in mental health.

Where do we go when this starts to happen? Where do we go when we start to feel like we do not feel like waking up anymore? What happens when we realise that perhaps being a doctor is not what we want to be and that killing ourselves for something we don’t even want is not worth it? What makes a person feel so empty, numb and hopeless, that they just want to terminate the pain that is their own existences?

Mental illness still carries a stigma in society. In black households, it is often not recognised for what it is and seen as a demonic attack or simply a child wanting attention. In very religious households, the same sentiment exists. Toxic masculinity also makes it difficult for men to feel like they are allowed to express their sadness, especially when it comes to crying.

Acknowledging that students can face many intersecting challenges in their lives, the question is what will UP do to curb an increase in the loss of students’ lives?

Its answer is Student Health Services, a building situated opposite Roosmaryn that is open from 7:30am to 3:30pm, Monday to Friday. If they attend to a suicidal student, they will need to contact the student’s guardians and ask permission to refer them to a hospital for psychiatric treatment.

There are only a few psychologists on the main campus. How many psychologists there are on Groenkloof, Prinshof, Mamelodi, or the veterinary sciences campuses, I don’t know. There are no psychiatrists to administer medication on campus.

There is more than one type of depression to contend with: major depression, persistent depressive disorder, bipolar disorder I and II, seasonal affective disorder, psychotic depression, peripartum and postpartum depression, premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), and situational depression.

Compulsory first year modules like academic orientation and academic information management (UPO and AIM) provide an ample opportunity for the institution to educate students on these mental illnesses as well as other pressing student issues, like rape culture and racism.

Mental illness is feeling like you are drowning, and you have no way of swimming to the surface. Mental illness is valid, and it is not shameful to ask for help. But there are not enough facilities and mental health practitioners – psychologists, psychiatrists and counsellors – on our campuses.

Apart from acknowledging this, the university needs to take Mental Health Awareness Month as seriously as it takes netball or rugby season. It’s time for all of us, but particularly those who educate us, to teach ourselves about what we can do to create an environment in which the stigma is broken, an environment in which a student does not feel they have to choose their life over an important test or exam, an environment in which they can whisper “Help,” and still be heard.

If you need help, you can contact the South African Depression and Anxiety Group on 0800 567 567 for suicidal crises or 011 234 4837 for general mental health queries. UP students can contact student health services on 012 420 2500.

Kemelo Sehlapelo is a freelance contemporary and ballet dancer and pilates teacher. She is also a full-time student at the University of Pretoria. She likes Nutella, peanut butter and hugs.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect The Daily Vox’s editorial policy.

Featured image by Rumana Akoob