During the 2017 academic year, the University of Cape Town (UCT) suffered unimaginable losses when several students tragically took their own lives. After a sobering 2017, the faculty of UCT are taking no further chances of students feeling too overwhelmed to cope and have kicked off 2018 with a mental health initiative called The Wellness Drive which took place on and around campus from the 5th to the 9th of March.
Due to the devastating loss of students last year, UCT is doing all it can to promote the importance of mental health and is encouraging students who suffer from mental illness to come out of the proverbial closet and speak up about their struggles. UCT’s mental health initiative aims to help new and existing students cope with the pressures of student life, speak openly about their struggles with mental illness and seek help when they need it. According to an email sent out to students from the 2018 Humanities Student Council, The Wellness Drive plans to “equip students with the resources and relevant literacy to help them identify mental health challenges and reach out for assistance before they develop into complex mental health difficulties.”
There are many people – students and non-students – who consider the student lifestyle to be one of leisure and minimal work. Although there are the exceptional few for who that is the truth, many students will at some point encounter a very different experience of university life; one of anxiety, depression and a general feeling of being overwhelmed and underprepared. Junaid Daniels, a second-year humanities student, describes his first year at UCT as a mixture of fear and excitement and admits that he had a hard time adjusting to the university environment. While excited at the prospect of studying and pursuing his passion in film, he remained fearful that he would not thrive in the university due to his struggles with anxiety and depression. Daniels is one of many students who have this fear. Babalwa Nomtshongwana, a second-year politics major, looks back at her freshman year as a hard learning experience. She admits that she – like many students – struggled with adjustment, not just academically, but to the UCT space itself which can be extremely intimidating, and goes on to say that even in her second year she is still adjusting.
Daniels believes that one of the misconceptions regarding mental health is how easy it is to get help and while help might be easy to find, “often times the hard part is convincing yourself you need it, especially when you know that no treatment is guaranteed to help.” Nomtshongwana, adds “although student wellness is available, there is still a huge stigma attached to mental illness and many students feel uncomfortable about going there.” Nomtshongwana goes on to say that while she approves of The Wellness Drive and what they aim to accomplish, they are overlooking a flaw in their system. “Something like this is definitely needed for students, but they’re hosting it at a pointless time. This time of year students are still enjoying the freedom of being at university and the coursework is still pretty light. This would be more effective around the middle of the semester and exam time when the real pressure has kicked in and students start to feel homesick and overwhelmed.”
Whether or not UCT plans to host another wellness drive remains to be seen, but one can only hope that this one will encourage more students to reach out and fight back against mental illness before it is too late.