The State of Mental Health at UCT

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By Louise van den Bergh

This article can also be found in the print Edition 3 (Wrap Edition) of VARSITY Newspaper.


VARSITY investigates Student Wellness Services and the new Mental Health Policy

Image by Thapelo Masebe

Last year, six suspected suicides took place at residences and private accomadation, and Student Wellness faced a waiting list of over 300 students needing support for mental health difficulties. Since then, a new mental health policy has been implemented. Student Wellness, under the leadership of its newly appointment director Dr Memory Muturiki, claims to have improved their services and that they are now meeting the demands of students.

According to UCT spokesperson, Elijah Moholola, the university is making known available resources, and is providing mental health workshops to destigmatize, and increase awareness about mental health challenges. Moholola also claimed that there is currently no waiting list. When asked what strategies the Student Wellness Services (SWS) has implemented to deal with its inability to meet the needs of students, he listed the following:

● More staff members have been appointed to increase capacity.
● SWS has realigned its operations to widen access by introducing a mental health triage service, and an outreach to mental health service at the Steve Biko Students Union and at Hiddingh Campus.
● SWS has commenced providing mental health awareness training/workshops at residences and at faculties.
● The Department of Student Affairs (DSA) has put into place a Crisis Intervention Nursing Service, where a nurse qualified in psychiatry is available to students experiencing mental health emergencies in residences.
● The DSA introduced the UCT Student Careline service, a 24-hour counselling service available to students during term and also during vacation. Students can access the UCT Student Careline by calling 0800 24 25 26 or by sending an SMS to 31393.

“..-25% of students have mental health difficulties significant enough to impair academic

At Student Wellness, students are supposed to be seen within approximately two days for an appointment with a clinical psychologist and also within a two-week turn around time for a consultation with a psychiatrist. However, when VARSITY interviewed students about their experiences with SWS, there were mixed responses. One student stated that she found SWS difficult to access in terms of waiting periods and specialised services. “On one occasion I could not access a private psychologist because my medical aid funds were depleted. I sought a psychologist on campus however, she told me she could not help me because I was already seeing someone else.”

Another student, Katlego Motheta, had positive interactions with the SWS: “I have had adequate support from UCT; especially from Student Wellness. I was assigned a social worker, psychologist and psychiatrist, and they were all actively handling my case.” SWS has a multidisciplinary team of 18 health professionals who all provide mental health services. The team includes psychiatric nurses, clinical social workers, clinical psychologists, medical practitioners and psychiatrists.

“The high rate of suspected suicides is of major concern to the university”

In April 2017, UCT created a new mental health policy. In this policy, the University recognizes that persons with mental health disabilities have been subject to multiple forms of marginalisation and exclusion, thereby promoting the redress of inequalities and disadvantages caused by prejudice and discrimination against persons with mental health disabilities. In this document, mental health disability refers to a mental health condition that: has been diagnosed by a registered mental health practitioner, is of long duration (at least 12 months); and substantially limits the student’s ability to perform academically.

A 3rd year student returning from a leave of absence due to the state of her mental health explains how she was diagnosed with Conversion Disorder, a rare disorder which occurs when the signals between the brain and the body are not properly converted as they are intercepted by anxiety and depression. Thus, there are days where she cannot walk and cannot feel parts of her body. She approached the disability centre after reading the new mental health policy, which states that students can register with the Disability Service on the grounds of a mental health disability. According to the policy, students with chronic mental health difficulties are to be accommodated in the same way as those with chronic physical health conditions. However, she stated, “I was told that I couldn’t apply for extra time or disability parking for mental health reasons.” She also had negative experiences with staff members, explaining that their reaction to her mental health condition resulted in her feeling marginalized and excluded from lectures. She describes how one lecturer, “after continuous letters and pleading, still refuses to put lecture slides on Vula and refuses to record lectures”. This excludes her from learning on days when she is forced to stay home because of her condition.

Regarding the prevalence of mental disorders among university students, Moholola points out that mental health challenges are not unique to UCT, stating that, “the clinical presentation of students at UCT has been reported as being in line with global trends, where 20-25% of students have mental health difficulties significant enough to impair academic functioning”. Sipho Hadebe, University House Head Student, explains how he believes that, as students, we face challenges beyond our control; “coping with diversity, changing your identity, poverty, being away from home, worrying about fees and half the time, we don’t have the necessary support we need.” He added that, “in my situation, as an African student, it is difficult to seek help. “Indoda ayikhali” which means men don’t cry, is what I was taught growing up, it simply means that as a boy/man you must deal with your issues internally/alone.”


“In my situation, as an African student, it is difficult to seek help. ‘Indoda ayikhali’ which means men don’t cry…”


Another student, studying Health and Rehabilitation, describes the extremely competitive environment at university, “staff members send that obligatory email; ‘I’m so sorry you are experiencing this… please let your convenor know, let us know if you need to talk… and get in touch with Student Wellness.’ But, it ends there. You’re left behind in the tracks of a fast-paced train. The work goes on. Missed a lecture? That’s too bad. There’s not much support other than that.” As stipulated by the mental health policy, accommodations on mental health grounds includes flexible assignment deadlines, adjustments to lecture and tutorial attendance requirements, the use of lecture recordings to facilitate access to missed lectures, adjustments to group work requirements, and allowing students to sit for deferred class tests.

When questioned about the suspected suicides of last year, Moholola stated, “the university is not in a position to confirm whether a death is a suicide or not. Any unnatural death has to be investigated by SAPS.” Following an inquest and a ruling by a court of law, the eventual cause of death is communicated only to the family and not to the university. Hence, the university refers to such deaths as suspected suicides. “The high rate of suspected suicides is of major concern to the university. We have also noted an increased incidence of stress, anxiety and depression among the student population – and this is a global trend.”

“We urge students experiencing mental health difficulties to seek help early and not to wait. We also urge students to speak to someone, even if it means making use of the 24-hour UCT Student Careline Service, booking an appointment at SWS or making use of our walk-in psychological service at the Steve Biko Students Union,” he added.

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