A focus on the mental health of staff at SA universities

Published On: 11 April 2022|

Not enough attention has been paid to staff at South Africa’s universities when it comes to their mental health. However, in examining this phenomenon and finding possible solutions, it is imperative to do so in the context of the broader challenges currently facing the country.

This was the message from Dr Keamogetse Morwe (left), a lecturer in the Department of Gender and Youth Studies at the University of Venda (Univen). She was addressing delegates at the recent Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) Engage webinar, which focused on mental health at South Africa’s universities.

She said 50% of South Africans live in abject poverty while unemployment continues to soar. For example, between February and April 2020, 2.5 million people lost their jobs. South African also had the highest Gini coefficient (a gauge of income or wealth inequality within a nation) in the world, making it the most unequal society. Dr Morwe said the CoVID-19 pandemic had only deepened this crisis.

Further demonstrating South Africa’s challenges,  Dr Morwe said in the 2021 World Happiness Report, South Africa was ranked 103rd in a total of 149 nations. “It stands to reason that whatever is happening in our country would affect us in the university context and influence our mental health,” Dr Morwe reiterated.

She referenced a 2021 study by Siphelele Nguse and Douglas Wassenaar which showed that 60 percent of South Africans suffered from post-traumatic stress which is linked to anxiety, depression and substance use disorders. What’s more, only 27 percent of these had access to any counselling facilities, which was a matter of grave concern.

Dr Morwe also cited international studies which indicate that more higher education employees are reporting high incidences of stress, anxiety and other forms of mental illness. According to one such study by Mangolothi & Rippenaar-Moses (2020), this is ascribed to a number of factors including work overload, the pressure to perform and publish, as well as the fierce competition facing academics who have to demonstrate their own value within their institutions. Boundaries between work and home life have also been blurred, a result, in part, of advances in technology, further increasing the mental pressure on academics.

“Academics,” Dr Morwe noted, “are more prone to stress disorders than any other community within the university sector. Unfortunately, there are taboos and a stigma attached to speaking out and seeking help, and the CoVID- 19 pandemic has only exacerbated this.”

In yet another report by Karen MacGregor, the author quoted Jonathon Novello, a clinical social worker and counsellor at Michigan State University in the United States, who had published that the pandemic had brought uncertainty and instability into the workplace. Working from home, staff had had to battle with intense anxiety, dealing with loss of loved ones, grief and many other issues.

“Not only were people worried about job security, there was also isolation and bereavement when loved ones became sick or died,” explained Dr Morwe,  “and not only were people’s normal structures taken away from them but they also couldn’t go to church and express their grief or find support. At the same time, academics still had to focus on their students and try and salvage the academic year. All sense of belonging was taken away from them.”

It was clear, she said, that South African institutions of higher learning needed to promote help-seeking behaviour through activities including :

  • Education & awareness – we need to challenge any mental health stereotypes and help overcome any fear of psychotherapy and encourage those who need it to seek help
  • Support & training – by creating circles of care  and using Afrocentric healing methods; continuous mental health messaging and peer counselling
  • Lifestyle enhancers – taking part in recreation and sporting activities; holistic self-care and a focus on nutrition and health.

“We also need compassionate leaders. We need to set clear boundaries in relation to both our peers and our students. A work/life balance is vital when it comes to looking after our mental health. We have to find our equilibrium and what works best for us. We must not be afraid to intervene if we realise that a colleague is struggling.”

She said it is almost impossible for staff to help students deal with their mental health issues if they cannot get help for themselves. A “whole institution wellness” strategy is vital.

Continued Dr Morwe: “With so much depression and anxiety dominant in the lives of South Africans, the question arises: How does the depressed lens or an anxiety dominated life influence how one views the world and engages with it, including through teaching, research and perception of data?

As a way to destigmatise and promote help seeking behaviour with her main constituent, Dr Morwe shared that “what I do in class is speak about mental health issues with my students (especially in light of the collective losses we experienced because of the CoVID-19 pandemic). I tell them where to get help. I also encourage young men to cry and emphasise that it is very important to be in touch with their emotions.”

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.