It’s always very overwhelming to enter a University. You have left the comfortable familiarities such as certain subjects and meaningful friendships at high school, and family support so a new transition takes place. Unfortunately, being away from close school friends may leave you feeling empty and sad. Being faced with a new range of subjects can also be uncomfortable. It may even lead to a “starting all over again” mentality after 12 years of working with subjects you were familiar with.
However, the shift into a new learning environment can leave room for mental illnesses such as Anxiety or Depression, and students need to be aware of this. Some interesting statistics relating to a global study were released by the University Of Stellenbosch in 2015. 12% of South African university students suffer from moderate to severe Depression symptoms and 15% of them suffer from moderate to severe Anxiety.
It’s great if starting university brings new patterns of socializing with new people, as well as interest in other activities. However, a complete loss of interest in hobbies and meetings can indicate a significant problem. It would help to join a university organisation, perhaps a sports team, art or drama lessons. Becoming part of a group that encourages positive change such as SRC (Student Representative Council) would also help. Taking care of the needs and desires of fellow students as well as being able to socialise with them will be a great benefit.
The general impression that everybody at university knows exactly what they are doing or what they want to do as a career needs to change. This can and often does lead to feelings of hopelessness, inadequacy or guilt. Students must know that it is OK to not be 100% certain of what you want to study when starting. More certainty will come as the course progresses. While it may not always be financially possible, it’s not forbidden to change subjects or majors a bit later down the line.
Another problem with entering university, is that you have now reached an age at which alcohol is a legal “luxury” you can consume and enjoy. Being outside of a school environment may also cause university students to think that they now have a right to indulge in what was forbidden and may still not be allowed. While there is nothing wrong with an occasional drink, Depression caused from being away from the comfort of school, could lead to excessive drinking, substance abuse and promiscuity. If you notice yourself over-indulging or being irresponsible, make sure that you have a look for the support programmes or group meetings in your area.
Feelings of physical inadequacy are especially seen in female students. They often compare themselves to others and continue to do so into adulthood. Being amongst new people means that bonds formed with boyfriends and girlfriends may be broken. Many breakups happen, this will also lead to Depression as this can often feel unbearable.
Being a new student, feeling anxious is almost a given and responsibilities such as choosing a major and meeting deadlines could play a part in this Anxiety. Finances such as tuition fees, res fees, transport costs as well as money to go out and uphold a social life can be very stressful. This stress is worse if you’re working to make sure that payments can be made. There is also more academic pressure with a heavier workload and you might find that you’ve failed a test or are struggling with study material for the first time. While Anxiety Disorder can be linked to various circumstances, it’s crucial to remember that Panic Attacks are often not in direct correlation with obvious issues, they can occur spontaneously. While revealing changes in sexual orientation will be freeing (this frequently happens around university age), Anxiety may also be experienced. This is due to fears of judgement and not being accepted by peers.
Dr Linde who is a clinical psychologist and a member of the advisory board, states that breathing exercises can be used to control Anxiety. The less one knows about the breathing process, the greater the power to panic. The 2 most helpful breathing exercises to do are abdominal breathing and calm breathing. To practice abdominal breathing, lie down on the floor and place a book on your stomach. As you breathe in, allow your stomach to slowly move out and you will see the book being lifted. Breathe out slowly and watch the book sink down. Please look on the SADAG website, www.sadag.org, for several simple helpful hints by Dr Linde and Zane Wilson, Founder.
Calm breathing can also be done by taking a deep breath, counting to 5, filling in your lower lungs first, followed by your upper lungs. Hold for five, then slowly exhale for five. Allow your muscles to go limp and warm, loosen your face and jaw muscles. Stay in this relaxed position for a few seconds. When you start doing this exercise, do it with your eyes closed and pay strict attention to your breathing. The goal should be to maintain slow, smooth breathing with long inhales and even longer exhales. When you’re about to write an exam or do something which is directly linked to you feeling stressed or anxious, do the calm breathing exercise. While it is a wise decision to see a psychologist or Dr if not coping with university, there are some additional physical self-care habits you could use:
- Follow a balanced diet and exercise.
- Use the abdominal & calming breathing tips
- Develop a routine that is to be followed daily.
- Get sufficient sleep.
- Connect and form a network with other university students.
- Make time to do something you enjoy (bubble bath, reading a book, watching a movie etc).
- Write in a journal to note your frustrations and challenges.
- Use resources available on campus such as tutors and perhaps even a councillor on campus.
- Focus on specific techniques and tools to work with such as spider diagrams and study groups.
SADAG manages a counselling and referral call centre for all 9 provinces in South Africa. The call centre receives up to 400 calls per day from people throughout the country needing help and referrals for various mental health issues including Depression, Anxiety, Bipolar Disorder, Trauma, Teen Pregnancy, Substance Abuse and Suicide. SADAG provides a 24 hour helpline for The University of Pretoria, University of Cape Town, Tshwane University of Technology and University of the Western Cape.
There is the 24 hour Discovery Medical student helpline 0800 323 323 which is available for medical students, interns & trainee doctors to help them cope with emotional issues, stress and mental illness. For student mental health and general enquires call: 0800 12 13 14.