By Mariam Nash
Having expressed my thirst (after a long walk from West Stop to the Economics Building) to Katherine Eyal, I was offered her couch as soon as she acknowledged my fast. Katherine casually sat down in her chair, leaned back, and our conversation began.
As a lecturer in the School of Economics, Katherine has had an abundance of experience with stressed-out students who are vying for their DP certificates – usually at the end of the semester, close to exams and when lecturers and convenors are all out of DP redemption. When reasons of mental health are given in hopes of a DP redemption, students at UCT are often subjected to the sceptical gaze of the guardians of DP. This has to stop.
A support group, not a society. This was emphasised throughout the conversation about Mad Hatters, and what it stood for at UCT. The Mad Hatters support group, founded by Katherine Eyal in 2014, acts as a platform of inclusion for UCT students with mental health conditions. A disclaimer from Katherine, “I am not a medical professional. I am a facilitator,” sets the scene and perhaps ambience of what can be expected at a group meeting.
So what can I expect? Every Friday from 1pm to 3pm, you can expect a group of students with the same anxieties and interests as you. It is a place where anonymity is respected and private details of mental health conditions do not have to be shared. The next Mad Hatters gathering will take place at the Department of Student Affairs’ (DSA) meeting room, which is on the 6th floor of the Steve Biko Building (the 2nd entrance). The Mad Hatters’ Vula site holds an invaluable archive of notes from previous gatherings that gives a more detailed look into what to expect at a Mad Hatters gathering.
Katherine emphasises that full disclosure of mental health conditions to lecturers or convenors is not necessary and may be avoided. Why? There is no reason to divulge the intimate and sometimes traumatic details about mental health. However, if you feel that you need to, you could simply let your lecturer or convenor know that you do have a chronic medical condition that may prevent you from meeting certain deadlines. That is it.
When asked if UCT has adequate support structures for the mental wellbeing of students, Katherine sunk into her chair and began to tell me the story of how the Mad Hatters support group has attempted to gain support from the UCT administration and stakeholders. This had failed, many times. However, to her excitement, their calls for a UCT that is conscious of mental health awareness have finally been heard and a Mental Health policy, drafted by the UCT Mental Health Task Team, has been circulated for general comment. This Mental Health policy aims to alleviate the university-related stigmas and anxieties faced by students with mental health conditions, as well as to create a space within UCT that is aware of mental health conditions beyond their medical names.
UCT is colossal, abuzz with students, aesthetically enchanting, yet isolating. The Mad Hatters support group embraces the fact that not all students fit neatly into the academic and social moulds of UCT, and a platform dedicated to students with mental health conditions is non-negotiable.