The impact of mental health concerns on students took centre stage when multiple stakeholders met to analyse the preliminary findings of research conducted to inform the policy.
The project is funded through the University Capacity Development Grant under the auspices of the DVC: Student Development and Support (SDS), Prof Pamela Dube. SDS had identified the mental health and wellness policy as a possible “game-changer” to respond to a growing demand for mental health services amid capacity constraints. The existing ratio at UWC is approximately one psychologist to 4 000 students.
“Within the context of inadequate public health support systems, not providing mental health support is currently more costly to the country. I think the cost to universities for not providing mental health and wellness support to students should be carefully considered.. So we need to understand the parameters of the responsibilities of higher education institutions, as well as the role that mental health plays in relation to student success,” explained Laetitia Permall, Director of the Centre for Student Support Services (CSSS), in her welcoming address at the colloquium.
Permall’s office conducted a University-wide survey to get input from the student community on the matter “so that we develop a policy for students, with students.”
Permall noted that students in higher education have to make daily life choices that require intellectual clarity, emotional maturity and psychological well-being. They also have to deal with issues related to food security, poor support networks and financial constraints.
“These could all perpetuate mental health concerns like depression, anxiety, as well as drug and alcohol abuse,” said Permall. Other areas of a student’s functioning that may be affected include class attendance and academic performance.
She said it became important for “a grounded, integrated and coordinated mental health and wellness policy for the whole university to meet the students’ needs and to develop a plan that provides suitable and evidence-based support services that contributes towards the creation of an environment which enhances the Student Experience - a key component of the Institutional Operating Plan.”
The next step, according to Permall, was to appoint a task team to embark on the writing of the policy and implementation plan.
“We have limited resources, but this has created an opportunity for intersectoral collaboration for a framework towards a more integrated approach so that we can create a culture that will move from awareness to action, and reflect the commitment that mental health matters because our students really matter,” she said. According to Rone Gerber, project leader, “Student mental health needs to be one of the main priorities at all higher education institutions if we are to create an enabling university environment.”