The past few years – with the resultant uncertainty, isolation, wide and devastating financial repercussions and momentous impact on health and social life – have led to a sharp spike in mental health issues experienced on higher education campuses around the world. Here in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the prevalence of anxiety among our student populations seems to show little sign of abating. The causes are many and multifaceted. But with so many of them, university leadership have a definite role to play in fighting this scourge on our campuses, says Prof Francis Petersen.
Students’ stress levels during the pandemic were consistently higher and more severe than those experienced by healthcare professionals. This is one of the findings of a study by the University of Bolton that monitored students’ mental health journeys during the pandemic and post-pandemic periods – the results of which were recently published in the British Journal of Educational Studies. It highlights much of what we already know about the relationship between the pandemic and students’ mental health – emphasising how the restrictions on face-to-face learning and interaction with classmates have severely affected students and hugely disrupted their educational and career paths. But what is even more significant, is that it also found no ‘statistically significant decrease’ in students’ mental distress levels, even when pandemic measures were lifted. This seems to be a global phenomenon. A report released by our own Department of Student Counselling and Development here at the University of the Free State, shows high numbers of students making use of our professional counselling and support services, with anxiety cited as the number one reason for students seeking help last year.
Effects of mental health challenges
The effects of our students’ continuing mental health battles are serious and far-reaching and can never be overemphasised. Not only do mental health challenges significantly hamper their studies and ability to concentrate – it causes a disconcerting drop in happiness, well-being, and life satisfaction. What are supposed to be some of the happiest years in their lives can turn into the most distressing, with serious implications for their professional and life journeys further on. Mental health challenges also often lead to substance abuse and negatively affect relationships. This poses a major concern for university authorities, as the inhibition of interaction with others in effect negates all our efforts to create thriving, interactive student communities. This is a problem that no one inside or outside the education sector can distance themselves from. In short: We are in trouble as a country if our future leaders cannot see their way towards their own future.
What causes the crippling anxiety among our students? Some of the causes are unavoidable, as they are either intrinsic to the demands of higher education, or a result of the particular juncture in time we find ourselves in – globally and nationally. But others are completely treatable – and preventable – such as the inefficient administration of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and government’s slowness to respond, causing great financial stress for affected students.
Transition to adulthood
For many students, university life is their first experience away from a protective home environment. This transition can be daunting, as they are confronted with a myriad of choices and even temptations. It is essential that we as university leadership are sensitive to this, and that we offer ample opportunities for personal development in tandem with our academic offerings. Time, effort, and resources spent on creating a campus culture that fosters resilience and care are never wasted.
Increased competition in the job market means that students put a lot of pressure on themselves to excel. A significant proportion of our national student population is made up of ‘first-generation students’, who are the first in their families to study towards a tertiary qualification. Carrying the hopes and ambitions of an entire family can certainly add to the burden our students carry. Here, the workshops offered by the UFS and other universities on topics ranging from time management to coping with stress, combined with professional individual and group counselling, play a valuable role in our students’ holistic development. Ultimately, we are nurturing and preparing young professionals for the job market, but we are also developing young citizens and members of society – many of whom will go on to become our future leaders. It is vital that they experience a culture of inclusivity, caring, and belonging during their study years, in order to one day establish communities that reflect the same values.
Another very real challenge for students is the fact that the path to a successful career is increasingly marked by uncertainty and ambiguity. Rapid technological advances have led to an ever-evolving job market, and students end up having to navigate a perceived maze of career options once they complete their studies – many of which they may be totally unfamiliar with. This increases their levels of doubt, stress, and insecurity. Many students also face the very real dilemma of wondering whether their chosen field will still exist, or still be sustainable, by the time they graduate. The prevalence of a so-called ‘gig economy’, where the labour market increasingly relies on temporary and part-time positions filled by independent contractors and freelancers, rather than permanent employees, also challenges the traditional notion that students may have of finding ‘a good job’ after their studies. The lack of security that comes with this way of working often clouds their long-term vision and can increase feelings of anxiety and a lack of control and agency. Universities can play a decisive role in addressing this anxiety by firstly making sure that our programme and qualification mix is up to date and relevant, reflecting the latest knowledge and trends. Here, comprehensive collaboration with industry partners – many of whom are alumni partners – is of great value. Not only do our industry partners provide input to our curriculum content – they also assist by giving our students precious practical work experience and career exposure, which can go a long way towards relieving stress and uncertainty. It is equally essential that universities invest in academic advising, ensuring that students’ career aspirations line up with their course content and the realities of the world of work.
Universities should also increasingly focus on developing essential skills such as adaptability, networking, and entrepreneurship in their curricular and co-curricular activities. To prepare our students for a complex work environment characterised by a blurring of lines between different branches of knowledge, we also need to encourage cross-disciplinary learning and research. In this way, we stimulate innovation and help students develop the skills and attitudes they need to thrive in an unpredictable job market.
Government’s introduction of subsidised, free higher education and training for poor and working-class families in 2018 has opened higher education to many students who previously could not access it. The ineffective administration of funds by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), however, often results in late payments – sometimes even suspension of payments – and general uncertainty about many beneficiaries’ academic future. Universities have been doing what they can to facilitate access to higher education by initiating and developing bursary programmes, sponsorships, and various fundraising initiatives. It is, however, vital that the challenge of students’ financial burden is addressed through a collaborative effort by all the responsible sectors and role players, without jeopardising the sustainability and longevity of institutions of higher learning.
Encouraging headway has been made to address the stigma around mental health challenges, as we see increasing numbers of students making use of the counselling and support services offered on our campuses. But more needs to be done to reach out to distressed students. Creating a supportive environment on our campuses, characterised by inclusivity, acceptance, and care, is an essential part of this. In the end, I believe our aim should be to not only help our students survive but thrive during their all-important study years.