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Addressing mental health in higher learning

“Institutions of higher learning have, just like other sectors, been greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Puleng Segalo, psychology professor in the College of Human Sciences at Unisa. “As a result, both students and staff have been left battling with mental health.” Commenting on the extent of the pandemic’s effect on the mental health of these groups, Segalo remarks that in many ways, people were afraid of the unknown and it seemed people’s lives had to change. “We all had to adapt to what was deemed the new normal,” she says.

Prof. Puleng Segalo

Segalo says that, depending on individual circumstances, some people might have experienced some level of mental health challenges such as depression, anxiousness and loneliness because of limited or no interaction with other people. She adds: “Having to teach and study fully online came with a lot of anxiety, uncertainty, panic and worry for many students and staff.”

Segalo states that both students and staff had to worry about their own well-being and that of their loved ones, while also having to think about their studies and performing well. She explains: “Staff had to worry about being able to provide quality education on platforms that some of them were unfamiliar with. Change, which is abrupt and unplanned for, generally brings uncertainty in most people’s lives, and this can have a great impact on mental well-being and stability.”

Segalo says that although Unisa is an open, distance and e-learning institution with limited or no direct student contact, the university has ensured that it provides useful information related to mental health all students on a regular basis. This applied also to staff. “In this way, people did not have to feel alone and uncared for,” she adds. “Numerous staff members, including those in the Department of Psychology, produced podcasts on mental health issues and ways of coping, and these were shared on various online platforms”.

“Furthermore,” says Segalo, “the Directorate: Employee Relations and Wellness also ensured that all the relevant resources pertaining to well-being were made available, including details of external resource centres that both students and staff could reach out to. In line with the saying ‘a healthy mind is a healthy body’, the university also offered online Pilates sessions,” says Segalo.

She recommends adopting the following coping mechanisms to tackle mental health challenges:

  • Staying connected with loved ones: Having someone to share anxieties and experiences with.
  • Self-care: Creating time to be with oneself—exercising, journaling, reading and more.
  • Limiting time spent on social media: Negativity on social media can sometimes weigh people down.
  • Compartmentalising work so that you do not feel overwhelmed: Managing what you can do at a time.

Segalo believes that during this difficult time, it is important for everyone to take care of their mental health. She elaborates: “We need to acknowledge that our mental health is interconnected with our physical health, and we should strive to always have a balance between mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing. When we are not mentally well, we will not be able to be productive, and it may affect how we engage or relate to others.”

Segalo advises both students and staff to reach out and speak to someone. “This could be a church minister, a professional mental health practitioner, or a trusted friend,” she concludes. “There are many organisations that offer free services for people with various mental health challenges and you should reach out to them anytime you feel overwhelmed.”

 

*Teaser image: Pixabay (pixabay.com)

*By Simphiwe Mthimunye, Unisa Student

Publish date: 2021/03/23