Students Are Not “Committing Suicide”, Universities Are Killing Us


I first went into a psychiatric ward when I was eighteen. I struggled with serious depression and had attempted suicide. At that age I didn’t know it was depression, I thought I was bewitched. It’s only when I came to university that I fully understood what mental illness is and how to take care of my mental health. Speaking about my depression on social media, with friends, lecturers and family has helped a bit but doesn’t change the fact that I’m poor, black, queer, a rape survivor and a victim of abuse which are the reasons partly for my depression, writes SIYAMTHANDA NYULU.

My depression got worse when I got to university. In my first year when I came to Rhodes University, I felt forsaken. I wondered why I came to this place that’s so anti me. I felt like I didn’t belong here. I remember it being difficult being in a residence full of girls. Yes I am a girl, but I stand out from all the other girls. I was still discovering my sexuality/gender/identity in my first year, which was very hard. I would get strange looks because people thought I was a boy. One student finally said to me: “Siya, do you remember in the first term, you were such a charity case?”

In the residence I lived in, we were taught about how to always make sure we condomise with our boyfriends. It was so pathetic. The language around sex and reproductive health was always heterosexual. In my first year already I felt excluded, I was reminded of my unwantedness.

We need to talk about the long-term effects of FMF on students’ mental health

There are many reasons why working class black students are highly depressed in university and resorting to suicide as a means of ending their suffering and pain. You see, the problem with institutional racism is that it’s sometimes not something that can be seen but rather it’s something that one feels. Institutional exclusion is hard to tackle because the university isolates you. It uses its power to make you believe that you do not belong and should doubt your capabilities. The entire structure and functioning of the university doesn’t accommodate poor black people.

At Rhodes University in the year 2015 we saw “We Can’t Breathe” graffiti across campus. It wasn’t metaphorically speaking, literally students can’t breathe. How does one breathe at a university where rape is fashionable and rapists are getting away with rape? How do you breathe in a university that is excluding you financially? How do you focus on your academics when you see the person who raped you at the lecture venue, tutorials, the dining hall and even town?

How do I breathe properly when I’m hungry?

How do you breathe when the curriculum and methods of teaching and learning are designed to exclude you as a black person? How do you breathe when you have racist lecturers/tutors giving you low marks for an essay you wrote that speaks to black empowerment and goes against Western ideologies? We are told to be “critical thinkers” and give our own opinion, but once you are radical in your writing, expect low marks.

Rhodes University Students Mourn The Death Of Khensani Maseko

I won’t be objective about this statement and I will say it without fear: Rhodes University killed Khensani Maseko. They are going to kill more womxn if they continue taking the issue of rape culture in this university lightly. If this university does not implement ALL the demands of #RUReferenceList protest, and continues wasting money on court cases excluding female activists, more rape survivors are going to suffer in silence and commit suicide. If this university is so adamant on being this anti-black space and is not willing to take serious the call for decolonising this institution and its curriculum, more students are going to suffer from depression. This toxic place continues to send students emails about historical debt, warning them that they will be excluded if this debt is not paid. How does reminding people of their debt help them excel in their academic achievements? It’s a slap in the face!

For a long time we have been speaking about depression yet there is very little effort from our universities and government of taking initiative to deal with the root causes of these suicides. We don’t need jumping castles to help us with our depression, like the Wits SRC did last year. We don’t need more discussions about the pandemic. We need our university and the government to take it seriously the same way AIDS, TB, cancer, etc is taken serious.

There has not been any decolonisation. The curriculum remains the same, management and senate is still largely white (male) and black students are still alienated. When our friends, comrades and class mates commit suicide do we consider these things? Or do we just go around social media with our hashtags saying “depression is real”, “rest in power”, acting as if we don’t know the REAL cause of their death.

But alas! Only in death will they realise we were depressed.

Siya Nyulu is currently doing her Multimedia Honours at Rhodes University. A Black radical feminist activist and a journalist at heart.

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

Featured image by Nabila Bana