• February 20th, 2020

Mental illness in academia: A subtle but huge problem

WINDHOEK – Even though it is rarely openly discussed, mental illness in the academic space is a major problem affecting both students and academics alike. 

New Era spoke to Margareth Mainga, the dean of students at the University of Namibia (Unam) to shed light on the issue. 
The office of the dean of students at Unam deals with students to ensure amongst others that they are mentally healthy to complete their studies. 

In an interview with New Era on Friday, Mainga confirmed that lecturers also suffer from mental illness but because she basically deals with students she was more qualified to talk about issues affecting the student population. 
“It is a weekly problem. Mental illness in students is a problem and just as it occurs in the community it is [also] among students,” stated Mainga. 

Often, due to the fact that people with mental illness are prone to be discriminated against, prospective students do not always reveal the truth on the application where they are asked if they have a mental illness of any sort. 

However, when life on campus becomes hard those with mental illness are likely to experience a relapse. 
The most common types of mental illnesses at the university among students include bipolar, depression and schizophrenia, said Mainga. Among others, affected students also exhibit signs of anger, she added.  

“Anger manifests itself in different ways. Many of our learners come from single-headed households and when they come here they see something else – they mingle with friends and they start to resent their upbringing,” she said, giving an example of how anger and other mental conditions are triggered.  Often, depression and other mental illnesses in students are triggered by traumatic events such as the death of a loved one such as a parent, or a disappointment in a relationship. Alcohol and substance abuse as well as gender-based violence in relationships are also contributing factors, added Mainga who is affectionately known on campus as “the mother away from home”. 

“Factors such as failing, not being able to write exams because students did not qualify, not being able to pay their tuition fees in order to write exams… this is what triggers it,” said Mainga. She also classified the condition as seasonal. This means that at certain times of the year more cases of mental illness are reported to the office of the dean of students compared to other periods. 

“It happens quite a lot in the first semester because this is when the loneliness sets in or adaptation – and around this time (end of August and September) when it is the time of getting Continuous Assessment marks when some students realise that they were not very productive,” said the social worker. 

In order to address the mental health problem at Unam, a number of programmes are in place.
The dean of students helps students to recover from or control mental illness through counselling and medical interventions. The office works with the Wellness Centre at the university to provide holistic treatment. 
Mainga said social workers work with other healthcare professionals such as nurses to ensure that the student receives complete treatment. No fees are charged for the counselling services.  

“We follow the holistic full person recovery approach. This means looking at the entire well-being of the student and not just the mental health aspect. Whatever is in your way to achieving academically well, we attend to that,” explained Mainga. 

Funds from the Student Emergency Hardship Fund can be accessed in cases where students need assistance beyond the university, she explained. “If need be that the student needs extra healthcare we will also take care of those needs from that fund. They don’t contribute anything towards the fund.”  

In some instances, if a student suffers from severe mental illness they have to drop out of university in order to recover at home, said the social worker. 

“If the child is in their third or final year, we feel that it’s not the end of the world and with support this person can be helped to finish their studies and graduate and this is what we do.”  Asked on how else to address the problem, Mainga said students should “act like big brothers and sisters for each other”. 

“They live together in the hostels and those rooms are so small there is no way that they can say that they didn’t know their peers were going through emotional distress. The moment you see change report it somewhere. There are housing committees, there are student leaders and there is the Wellness Centre.” 

New Era could not obtain statistics on mental illness at Namibian institutions of higher learning, however, information obtained from the University of Cape Town website indicates  that in South Africa, research suggests that as many as 12 percent of university students experience anything from moderate to severe symptoms of depression. 

And 15 percent report moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety. One study found that as many as 24.5 percent of a large sample of South African students reported some form of suicidal ideation in the two weeks before they were interviewed.
Although rates of psychological distress are high among university students, evidence suggests that only one in six students receive minimally adequate mental health treatment.

Mainga also urged lecturers to be observant. “Sometimes when students have strange behaviour in a classroom it’s already a sign. Don’t just see a student, see an individual and try to reach out.” 
The office of the dean of students occasionally holds pyjama talks with female students and bull’s talks with male students to address issues such as HIV/AIDS, relationships and other problems affecting students. 

Alvine Kapitako
2018-09-03 10:11:09 | 1 years ago

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