I have always been interested in university life, mostly because I never had the opportunity to go myself.
When I finished high school I enrolled into a smaller, more affordable college to do my journalism degree. As an outsider I believed that university students seemed to have it all. They looked so carefree and as though they were having the time of their lives. It was the fashionable clothes, the newest gadgets, the endless clubbing and meeting people from different cultures and backgrounds that made it seem that way.
There was just something so appealing about being away from home and having the freedom to do whatever they wanted without their parents interfering.
I thought this until I met Shamiso. Shamiso was a university student in the capital city, Harare, and she and I became very good friends. We met through a mutual friend and instantly became buddies.
Through Shamiso I got to see what university life was really like and it wasn’t what I had expected. It seemed so much harder than just endless drinking, partying, smoking and serial dating. Shamiso went out partying at least three times a week and she would keep alcohol under her bed for “emergencies”. This was many years ago when I was still in my twenties and I believe my passion for helping university students came from seeing how Shamiso and her friends experienced university.
Zimbabwe has gone through many years of economic turmoil and one of the hardest-hit areas is education. Parents are struggling to send their children to university and most of the time they can just about manage to fund fees and accommodation and then students have to find a way to fund themselves.
On going to university students are faced with the anxiety of leaving home and having to make friends among a sea of strangers.
Then there is the pressure to fit in and wear the coolest clothes and have the latest smartphones. And not forgetting that the main point of going to university is to learn. So there is also the stress of studying and the fear of failure. In among all of this there is the drama that comes with relationships, sex and the pressure to drink and take drugs.
We need to talk about mental health at university
University mental health: taking student well-being seriously
‘Everybody knows someone who has broken’
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A typical university in Zimbabwe will have, at most, four trained student counsellors dealing with at least 15,000 students. That’s one counsellor per 3,750 students.
Of more concern is not the counsellor-to-student ratio, but the fact that most students don’t even approach counselling departments to get help when they experience anxiety, stress or depression, or when they feel suicidal.
There is such a stigma around mental and emotional health in our country, and at the core of this is a deeper stigma around seeking help and being vulnerable. And this is the case particularly among university students because they must always be “cool”.
Generally Africans trivialise mental and emotional health issues. Our culture mostly perpetuates the notion that men, in particular, should not talk about their emotions because it is not a “manly” thing to do, and as a result we experienced a very high number of male suicides in 2018. This was mostly down to the lack of early intervention.
The country has such a long way to go in prioritising mental health. Mental health is not easily accessible to the average person mainly because of the high costs of seeing a practitioner and also because of the lack of availability of qualified people.
The Global Institute of Emotional Health & Wellness (GIEHW) has tried to bridge this gap through Campus Companion, which is specifically designed to prepare students mentally for university life. The programme runs through the whole semester, offering strategies to deal with depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety and stress.
We encourage students to have conversations about mental health issues through the resident mental wellness clubs that we have set up at different institutions. Our vision is to see mental health treated as a number one priority among students through innovative initiatives that also incorporate music, poetry, the spoken word and the use of digital platforms. We believe that a mentally and emotionally healthy student is a more productive student.
Outside universities we have set up a 24-hour suicide prevention toll-free hotline and a free counselling centre. We have only one currently but are hoping to make the service available across the country by the end of the year.
GIEHW is currently training volunteers who will be placed in public health spaces to offer mental health counselling to communities for free. With the ability of resources we want to train more volunteers for first-line interventions that will be available to all schools, universities and churches.