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Is there a crisis in student mental health?

Student mental health is a ticking time-bomb according to leading counseling psychologist Kakinda Adrian Ivan who believes it crucial that we break down the stigma of mental health problems, that we encourage student disclosure to ensure our young people get the support they need: he writes

It was Friday November 9thwhen Uganda joined the entire world to celebrate the mental health day and this year’s celebrations were held at Kyambogo University, psychology department in particular in conjunction with the Ministry of health and the theme was “young people and mental health in a changing world. “This explains the basis of my yell and frustration.

Starting university should be a time for having fun and making new friends. So why are we seeing record referral rates to student counselling services and reports of student suicides in the news? And what can universities do to help

Type ‘Student mental health’ into a search of Uganda news and you’ll be hit by headlines referring to: ‘The ticking time-bomb’, ‘Students being let down’, warnings that ‘problems are rising’. If you read these stories in isolation, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we’re in the depths of a crisis in student mental health.In reality the picture is much more complex. In June this year, the Uganda bureau of statistics reported that the suicide rate among the general population is actually higher than the comparable age group of university students.

In Uganda, many students who join University and other institutions of higher learning have lived through a variety of difficulties, including high levels of poverty, loss of traditional social support and HIV/AIDS epidemic. Under these circumstances, it would be expected that, with the added pressure of studies, University students would exhibit high levels of psychological distress. However, the prevalence of mental health problems among University students in Uganda is unknown.

What the figures say

We know that, across the population, there have been increases in symptoms of depression and anxiety among young women. But there are real gaps in data and understanding. From what we know about university students, only two things seem to be clear; there has been a significant increase in reporting of mental distress and demand for support services. At some institutions as many as one in four students are either being seen, or waiting to be seen, by a university counsellor. So, what’s going on?

I believe that we need to urgently direct attention to understanding what’s changing for students. If we saw a dramatic increase in the number of students turning up in accident and emergency wings of hospitals with broken legs, would we ask for resources to be focused on improving orthopaedic surgery? Or would we ask why these students were breaking their legs and direct resources to reducing this risk?Focus on prevention

With a new Kyambogo University Research and Innovation grant, I’m working with colleagues across the country to develop a national research network to better understand why we’re seeing increased levels of mental distress among students and how institutions can respond. Two of the issues we’ll be looking at are the factors that contribute to mental health problems and the role that knowledge and beliefs about mental disorders play, known as mental health literacy.

Today’s students face numerous sources of insecurity. They are likely to be renting for years after they graduate which is nicknamed “dark days”, which is a do or die period of make and break period, with high levels of debt. They face a graduate employment market that is slimming down and speeding up. And any number of factors may be impacting upon mental health while at university, from the loneliness that comes with solo-living to the increased pressure to achieve high grades.

The increased adoption of Virtual Learning Environments and a 24/7 work culture may be adding to isolation. And, ironically, increased concern for risks around student mental health may be making academics more cautious about providing informal support, out of fear it may have an inadvertent detrimental effect.

Going beyond raising awareness

Mental health literacy first struck me as a key issue when I was listening to young adults speak at the International Association of Youth Mental Health conference. They raised concerns that their peers see campaigns saying, ‘ask for help’, but struggle to identify where ‘normal’ stress ends and a mental health problem begins. They aren’t sure if, and when, this message applies to them.

I don’t know how widely these views are held. But if we are to really support better mental health for students, we need to understand how to move beyond raising awareness and build good mental health literacy.

Learning from students

My Network, will be working with people with a range of expertise across higher education, including students, to improve our understanding of student mental health. We’ll collaborate with the charity Student Minds, as they work to develop a charter mark for mental health at universities. Our first step is to recruit a national team of students to lead a Student Research Team.

Ultimately, we hope that the insight we gain through the network will have an impact both inside and outside student halls. It’s an issue we can’t ignore.

But it’s absurd that students even don’t know where to get help, counselors are trained to handle such but the masses have consistently sidelined their professionalism by thinking mental health can be handled by each and every professional, you can tell this by wondering how many counselors have the ministry of health or private sector or schools employed? We need to raise the dust as we address this issue which is disgusting and heartbreaking when we focus on the future of our youths’.

The future will exonerate me!

By Kakinda Adrian Ivan

Counseling Psychologist, Kyambogo University

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