Nziman blade | Mental health education is key to the success of South Africa’s skills economy


Raising awareness and reducing stigma through integrated peer-to-peer mental health education programs and student-led outreach programs open conversations to better understand and support student needs.

Breaking the silence can only be achieved through the peer-to-peer approach.

Mental illness is the fastest growing and largest pandemic in the world.

Mental illness among young people aged 15-24 is a matter of global concern, representing the heaviest burden in this age group and affecting one in five young people globally, as well as in South African higher education .

It is estimated that nearly one billion people worldwide suffer from some form of mental disorder.

In South Africa, the month of October has been set aside for educating the public about mental health issues, with the aim of reducing the stigma and discrimination often associated with mental illness.

A Covid Impact 2020 study by the Higher Health and Human Sciences Research Council showed that more than 65% of students experienced mild to severe psychological distress during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Adolescents and young adults present a higher risk of suicide, since 70% of mental disorders occur before the age of 25.

Young college students are extremely vulnerable to mental health problems, according to the Medical Research Council (MRC) study, which found that one in five young college students bore the greatest burden of mental illness, a significant number who needed Support.

Rates of major depressive disorder were approximately 15.4%, generalized anxiety disorder approximately 10.9%, panic disorder 7.2%, and bipolar spectrum disorder 1.8%.

The 30-day prevalence of other mental health conditions was poor concentration (21%), substance abuse (5.1%), alcohol dependence (2.5%) and post-traumatic stress disorder (21%).

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These rates are significantly higher than those observed in the general population of the country. These rates are also slightly higher than rates typically seen among students from other parts of the world.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) Global Health Estimates report, South Africa has had the third highest suicide rate (12.3 deaths per 100,000) of all African countries.

The WHO estimates that one life is lost by suicide every second.

Each death is a tragedy for family, friends and colleagues. Yet suicides are preventable. According to the MRC study, suicidal behavior is high — 8.6% of students reporting having made a suicide plan and 2.3% admitting to having attempted suicide.

These are significantly higher than those that would be observed in the general population.

For young South Africans in particular, a host of issues also fuel their mental illness.

School stress, substance abuse, relationship issues, gender-based violence, financial problems and adjustment disorders.

This crisis has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the national confinement of which has brutally disrupted traditional ways of learning.

Mental illness is not only related to the unique stresses of transitioning to university and college life and the academic demands placed on students.

There is a complex relationship between mental illness and other epidemics and health issues facing many students in our country.

These include HIV, gender identity, sexual orientation, gender-based violence, disability, alcohol and other substance use, and the stigma associated with all of these conditions. .

Our goal through Higher Health – our agency responsible for ensuring a healthy post-school education and training sector – is to develop a holistic approach to addressing this.

If not properly addressed, mental health issues can lead to unpleasant repercussions, including antisocial behavior, stress and depression, lack of attention and concentration, poor academic performance, deterioration mental capacity, suicidal thoughts and even suicide.

Improving the health and well-being of young people is crucial for their well-being today and for their future economic productivity.

Improving youth access to mental health care in higher education institutions and communities ensures that students and young adults receive treatment for mental health issues through early identification and referral towards treatment.

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This is why we are seeing what is called an upsurge in mental health issues in the post-school education and training (PSET) sector.

Raising awareness and reducing stigma through integrated peer-to-peer mental health education programs and student-led outreach programs open conversations to better understand and support student needs. Breaking the silence can only be achieved through the peer-to-peer approach.

Access to psychosocial and mental health education at an early stage, including early detection of risks, early identification of signs of mental health symptoms and ensuring adequate access to care and support , like the treatment, helps bring a student back in skill development, personal growth and ensuring that they are not drawn into irreparable damage.

Good management of physical and mental health should become a habit during these life stages because it is a key predictor of disease burden in adults and because health, such as education , is a key factor in the intergenerational transmission of poverty.

Significant investments are underway to empower disadvantaged students to graduate to build our skills economy.

Various studies have confirmed that providing students at PSET institutions with a comprehensive and holistic suite of mental health services is necessary to successfully manage the crisis.

Depression, suicidal thoughts and anxiety are among the disorders commonly identified among students.

The Department of Higher Education and Training’s (DHET) implementing agency, Higher Health, further works to bring mental health services more accessible and acceptable to students’ doorsteps through its hands-on approach. three levels (learn, act, do).

Higher Health builds through its peer-to-peer program on the same principles of how we have fought other pandemics, such as HIV, GBV, Sexual and Reproductive Health and Covid-19.

Higher Health strives to implement a co-extra-mural curriculum in civics, health, and wellness across all of our universities, TVET colleges, and CET college campuses.

Health and civic education in the early stages of young life empowers and transforms our young people to develop healthy behavior, mental well-being and civic values ​​for their lives, helping us as a nation to build an economy qualified as healthy.

Higher Health is further strengthening the existing infrastructure of mental health and psychosocial services in all our universities, TVET and CET colleges in the form of clinical phycologists, certified counselors and other support structures.

The main objective includes the early detection and detection of mental health problems among students in the PSET system, with a conscious focus on the TVET and CET sector, especially in rural and peri-urban campuses.

Higher Health has launched a free 24 hour helpline on 0860 36 36 36 in partnership with the SA Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG).

Students can be helped with their mental health condition and supported through crisis management and linking to treatment and long-term care. We can now report that in 2021, our helpline helped over 11,297 students in mental health crisis, with a recorded average of 1,000 lives saved per month.

Every crisis is a human life affected by issues of anxiety, trauma, depression, violence and suicidal ideation which are now managed by the experienced psychosocial services staff deployed to support our students.

We encourage more young people to contact this line for help.

Through our mental health co-program, we aim to train student peer champions to help reach community members and help them understand and break the stigma associated with mental illnesses.

Civic education is an essential tool towards transformational change, where building families will not only help us fight disease and health pandemics, but will also help ensure that we have empowered youth to help build a sustainable South Africa.

To this extent we have introduced extramural health and wellbeing and a peer civic education program where mental health for the whole PSET sector is a standalone module, whether in universities, TVET or CET.

The module empowers young students through participatory pedagogy (each one, reach one, teach one) from the earliest stages of their lives on issues directly related to their lives.

  • In 2021, 107,639 students were enrolled in the higher mental health course;
  • 69,770 students completed mental health risk screening;
  • 17,431 students put in contact with additional support via our various support channels;
  • 25,964 students received psychosocial support from on-campus resources, including student counseling services and primary health care clinics.

In 2022, we had:

  • 108,749 students enrolled in higher mental health courses;
  • Higher Health psychologists conducted 6,221 sessions with students, an average of 518 sessions per month;
  • 21,812 students were linked to complementary care through our various support channels;
  • Additionally, 25,964 students received psychosocial support from on-campus resources, including student counseling services and primary health care clinics.

Higher Health has already partnered with other stakeholders, such as mental health researchers, Wellcome Trust, Howard University, Cambridge University and SAGE Bionetwork, to explore whether the technology can be used as one of the management tools mental health issues, in addition to interventions.

Like much of the population, young people are at the heart of South Africa’s future. It is important that our young people are supported and empowered.

This includes taking care of their mental health needs. Early access to youth-friendly, context-appropriate and stigma-free mental health programs is essential to reducing the long-term psychological, social and economic challenges of mental illness.

This is what we, as Higher Health, want to ensure we achieve through our interventions.

Mental illness is not a shame – it affects us all to a greater or lesser degree. By speaking up, speaking out, and being cared for, we can make sure our young people aren’t too sick to graduate.

  • Dr Blade Nzimande – Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation