With more than 30% of university students confirming that they had experienced a common mental disorder in the preceding 12 months, with 20% having experienced common generalised anxiety disorder, it’s clear that academic institutions and student residences must place a priority on students’ mental health.
Furthermore, nearly three quarters of UCT students said cited mental ill-health such as anxiety and depression being their greatest challenge during the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020, followed by disconnection from peers and lecturers, and a lack of quiet places in which to study.
Students’ mental health in the COVID-19 environment has been further impacted by loss of income in their families due to job losses, grief after deaths among those dearest to them, and academic pressure with the move to online learning.
Concerns about family safety and wellbeing also impact students’ mental health, with many NSFAS-funded students sharing their NSFAS meal allowances with their families, leaving the students hungry and destitute, with heightened anxiety or depression.
The risk is even higher for students in historically excluded and marginalised sectors of the population, particularly women, those of atypical sexual orientation, and disabled people.
“Students turn to formal structures like residences for senses of structure and support, and from the collegial learning environment that offers the reassurance of time spent with others that have similar goals and objectives,” says Millet Nkanyane, ResLife manager at Respublica Student Living.
“We have noticed an increased need for psychosocial support among our students, who have had to deal with the complexities of online learning, family stress and trauma as a result of the pandemic and its impacts, all in addition to navigating their way through the challenges of tertiary education.”
Nkanyane has been forging new paths in student support with Respublica’s ResLife programme at its 10 purpose-built residences in Johannesburg, Midrand, Pretoria, Bloemfontein and Cape Town for six years, and emphasises that student accommodation must offer so much more to students than a roof over their heads – particularly in the current challenging environment.
“Parents and funders should choose a student residence that gives students everything that they need to be able to focus on their lectures and assignments – particularly first-years who away from home for the first time ever,” she says. “The current environment also makes it essential to offer specialised COVID-19 wellness support, whether it’s to support students who have contracted the virus, or to help detect mental illness and in turn to support those students too.”
Furthermore, students must have access to quiet study spaces, unlimited internet access, and sufficient facilities to prepare their own food – or to buy it, if needed. A residence that has uninterrupted power provided by on-site generators in the event of load-shedding, also helps reduce students’ stress.
“A strong ResLife programme will also help students learn positive ways of coping with the complexities of student life, whether it’s figuring out how to make new friends in a socially distanced environment, or knowing that they have someone to turn to if they are struggling with mental health,” Nkanyane adds.
She adds more senior students can be very effective mentors to their younger counterparts, if trained properly, and that support from the likes of the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) is essential to the success of any student support programme.