Clashes between protesting students and police or private security has become the daily norm for so many students in South Africa.
The often violent scenes has led to concerns about the trauma that students are currently experiencing and are likely to live with for a long time.The Wits Counselling & Careers Development Unit (CCDU) has inidcated that students may experience trauma as a result of the violence associated with the current protests.
For many, the very notion of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) might seem very far from their own realities or experiences. According to the CCDU, many students may be experiencing various levels of trauma.
PTSD is often an overlooked by-product of experiencing trauma. But, in order to be able to seek medical help, one must first understand what PTSD is and how to spot the symptoms. Gregory Eccles, a counselling psychologist in private practice, defines PTSD as “a dysfunctional reaction to a traumatic situation such that the person’s emotions, thoughts or behaviour” experience negative reactions. PTSD may also cause disruptions to one’s social, academic or work life.
PTSD is a disorder that can only be diagnosed by a trained professional after a few weeks of someone experiencing symptoms associated with it. What makes it a difficult disorder to manage, however, is that it is neither predictable nor is there one specific way of dealing with it. “Everyone experiences and reacts to different situations differently. Nobody reacts to or experiences things the same way” due to their vulnerabilities and previous exposure to violence or trauma, says South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) volunteer and Psychology student at the University of Pretoria, Cayley Jorgensen. “There are a lot of potential risk factors such as genetics, temperament, and personality,” reiterates Eccles.
According to educational psychologist at CCDU, Shameen Naidu, “there are four types of symptoms that are related to both trauma and PTSD. Only when these symptoms persist for longer than four weeks, a diagnosis of PTSD may be made”. These include:
- Intrusion or Re-experiencing (the trauma): intrusive thoughts or memories; nightmares related to the traumatic event; flashbacks, feeling like the event is happening again
- Avoidant symptoms: Avoiding thoughts or feelings connected to the traumatic event; avoiding people or situations connected to the traumatic event
- Negative alterations in mood or cognitions: Memory problems that are exclusive to the event; negative thoughts or beliefs about one’s self or the world; distorted sense of blame for one’s self or others, related to the event; being stuck in severe emotions related to the trauma (e.g. horror, shame, sadness); severely reduced interest in pre-trauma activities; feeling detached, isolated or disconnected from other people
- Increased arousal symptoms: Difficulty concentrating; irritability, increased temper or anger; difficulty falling or staying asleep; hypervigilance – being easily startled.
Prevention is better than cure, according to Eccles who advises students to debrief and talk to their support systems or a professional about what has occurred as this may better prepare them to deal with their personal reactions.
“Students need to feel safe and take care of themselves, obtain support, find appropriate outlets for their emotions, and continue with their routines as much as possible with the awareness that they may not necessarily feel like themselves for a while. Once they have settled and are more aware of their needs and emotions, and those who feel the need for further support may seek counselling,” says Naidu.
Students who find themselves having any of the above symptoms or are having difficulty studying, sleeping or even coping with their daily routines, they may contact CCDU on 011 717 9140/32.
Alternatively, students may make use of SADAG’s 24/7 helpline 0800 12 13 14.
*CORRECTION: This article originally said that CCDU “has put out a call to all students to remain cautious when engaging in protest action”. This is incorrect and has been amended in the copy above. We apologise for any inconvenience caused.