“The stress, the anxiety, the feeling of inadequacy – it is honestly a lot.”

The university lifestyle, as students know it, has drastically changed from one moment to the next, forcing students to adapt to a new lockdown reality and taking a toll on their mental wellbeing in the process. This new reality, shaped by the global pandemic and the national lockdown in South Africa, has changed the academic and social elements of student life and has proved challenging for various reasons, including having to learn in a completely different way and in a new learning environment.

Thabo Chambule (20), a first-year mining engineering student at Wits University, usually lives in an off-campus student residence called Gateway, but has had to return home due to the lockdown. Chambule told Wits Vuvuzela, “My university experience has drastically changed, especially because the learning environment has completely changed within such a short space of time. It went from being exciting and pleasant to being uncertain and anxious. Having to suddenly return home and study there is not easy.”

Roslyn Macnab, a psychologist at the Psycholegal Assessment Centre (Macnab’s practice), stressed that the home environment is not always conducive to studying. She told Wits Vuvuzela, “It’s difficult [for students] to separate themselves from home time and work time.”

The move to a new learning environment has also cause undue stress on some students. According to Lynette Sikhakhane, a psychologist at the Wits Counselling Careers and Development Unit, (CCDU), some of the most common issues among students during lockdown include stress, anxiety, difficulty coping with online learning, difficulties with living circumstances and depression.

Adapting to the new circumstances has not been easy for students.  “It has raised issues around health challenges, emotional impact and having to adapt to an already stressful academic curriculum,” says Sikhakhane.

Although the CCDU cannot say with certainty that they have helped more students during lockdown than before, it is clear that many students have also experienced mental health issues linked to the pandemic and lockdown regulations.

Online learning has also created the possibility of technical difficulties, which can often become stress-inducing when students are trying to complete time-sensitive work.

Nineteen-year-old Sibongile Beka, a first-year LLB student at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), says, “There are a lot of challenges, such as having connectivity issues, no resources and the  power outages occurring due to load shedding.”

Students have struggled with their motivational levels due to the non-conducive work environments, along with other challenges. Some students have turned to their peers for motivational support through technology.

Aphiwe Lila, 22, a first-year BA student at UJ, created a WhatsApp group for students in need of motivation and peer support. The group, called 2020 Study Marathon, was created on Tuesday, August 4, and has more than 200 members from various South African universities.

Lila says, “I believe if students have mental support, which is what the group aims to offer students, and they get all the motivation that will keep them going, they will excel academically, because not only has this pandemic affected our academics in some way, it has also affected our mental health.”

Group members share study tips, form connections with students in their same courses and help one another study through motivational support. Additionally, the members create study sessions where students study at set times to feel connected.

Professor Maria Marchetti-Mercer, a psychology lecturer at Wits, told Wits Vuvuzela, “Most people need social interaction. It’s our way of sharing our stressors and anxieties, and being reassured that we are not alone.”

Mpho Brian Sithole, 21, a first-year radiography student at UJ and member of the group, says, “I lacked motivation. I wanted to hear how others deal with the same issues that I had.”

Some of the most common issues reported to the CCDU during lockdown have been stress, anxiety and depression. Photo: Catia De Castro

Those with and without previous mental health issues have been affected by the lockdown. According to an online survey conducted by UJ’S Centre for Social Change between April 13 and May 13, 60% of South Africans are frequently stressed and 33% are depressed. The benchmark for depression is usually between 18% and 27%, which indicates a decrease in mental wellbeing.

Chambule, who had no prior mental health issues, says the lockdown has taken a major toll on his mental wellbeing.  “The stress, the anxiety, the feeling of inadequacy; it is honestly a lot,’’ he says. ‘’If it wasn’t for the CCDU then I don’t know how I would be surviving the lockdown.”

Beka, on the other hand, has previously struggled with depression and says, “The lockdown has worsened my depression, as I am no longer able to talk to my peers who give me continuous support.”

There remains a negative stigma around mental health issues and many often struggle to ask for help.  Chambule told Wits Vuvuzela, “Men are expected to be emotionally strong, so it is hard for them to express their feelings. They perceive vulnerability as a weakness. Society at times doesn’t take mental health as a serious issue.”

Lecturers have been made aware of some of the issues experienced by students and have had to try to help. Louis Botha, a lecturer at the Wits School of Education, told Wits Vuvuzela, “There’s a clear indication that students are struggling with online learning and living conditions. Some have even experienced tragic circumstances with parents that have passed away or become sick.”

Botha adds, “I don’t think we as lecturers are even remotely equipped to deal with issues like these.”

Although lecturers might not always be the best equipped to help with certain issues, there are many resources students can make use of.

Students can reach out to on-campus counsellors such as the CCDU at Wits and the Centre for Psychological Services and Career Development (PsyCaD) at UJ for help with mental health issues, or to SADAG, which is also free.

Alternatively, there are coping mechanisms students can utilize at home. The World Health Organization (WHO) provides guidance and advice on mental wellbeing amid covid-19. Examples include maintaining a daily routine, keeping informed and healthy use of social media – advice that can all be found on their official website.

Helpful resources:

  • CCDU crisis hotline: 0800 111 331
  • PsyCaD crisis hotline: 0820541137
  • SADAG hotline: 011 2344837 or 0800 456 789
  • WHO resources

FEATURED IMAGE: The nationwide lockdown, and the drastic changes that have come with it, have had an impact on the mental health of university students. Photo: Catia De Castro