By Ramneek Ahluwalia

Milan Kundera’s 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being includes the following sentiment: “For there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.”

With so many lives lost, and individual lives and livelihoods in the balance, we may find ourselves incapacitated by compassion for those around us who suffer. We’ve heard of men feeling sympathetic morning sickness when their partners are pregnant. Since the pandemic-enforced lockdown, you may have found yourself checking your temperature or worrying about a tight chest after coming home from an essential shopping trip. “Did I get the virus? Am I infected?”

Feeling foolish about this normal reaction denies the tangible effects that living through the pandemic and lockdown have on our mental health.

The Covid-19 period is a lonely time. Loneliness wears away at our morale, resilience, will, ability to strive and achieve. It can seem like a hopeless hole that, like a magnifying glass, increases our anxieties, depressions, fears or thoughts of suicide. Thousands of people yearn for help — among them thousands of students and young people concerned about where their lives are headed. This should be the time, they think, to study, graduate, become a breadwinner. But doubt seeps in and with it mental ill-health. 

It can also translate into recklessness, especially in young people, who may feel a sense of “throw caution to the wind, you only live once”. After all, Covid-19 has little or no bearing on them.

The lockdown has tangibly changed conditions for those in higher education. With whom can students share their problems if they are alone at home or in their residence? 

Being cognisant of these issues has prompted student health agency Higher Health to amplify and fast-track its interventions that help students and staff in the post-school sector manage mental health challenges and support their mental wellness.

Whose shoes are you wearing today?

Put yourself in the shoes of the first-year students who were looking forward to starting their lives away from home, possibly making their own decisions for the first time, and hoping to make new friends. Or slip into the shoes of the final-year students planning their careers, mapping out their next steps. It’s as though someone pressed the pause button, forcing everything to be  placed on hold. When some students have returned to campus, they have encountered an environment that looks nothing like the place that they once knew — no matter how briefly. And it may never look the same again.

Young people are grieving for what they lost because of Covid-19. This was going to be the year of #TwentyPlenty. The loss of their expectations feels almost visceral. 

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) has seen calls to its helpline double since the start of the lockdown, and has received up to 1 400 cries for help a day.

The World Health Organisation and local experts have called for authorities to prioritise mental health as the wellbeing of whole societies has been severely impacted by the pandemic.

After all, physical and psychological health go together. 

With the guidance of the department of higher education and training and support from Sadag, Higher Health mapped the mental health and substance abuse priorities related to Covid-19 among students. A tailor-made three-tier programme considers why and how students and staff may be impacted and how to assist individuals who experience problems. 

Holistic three-tiered approach

At the primary level, Higher Health’s student-led peer-to-peer programme creates awareness and introduces initiatives to increase psychological resilience and to recognise and reduce anxiety, stress and depression and prevent suicide. It consists of peer-based counselling, mental health self-risk assessments and various communication initiatives. 

The secondary level entails a Higher Health 24-hour toll-free student and staff helpline, run in alliance with Sadag, which provides free telephonic and SMS counselling, crisis intervention and support, and referrals to mental health professionals and other psychosocial resources to students and staff across all campuses, in 11 official languages. Higher Health can also assist individual institutions with capacity-building and implementation.

At a tertiary level, Higher Health has appointed 10 additional clinical psychologists who will work across the country.

The hope is that together, we can carry the unbearable load. NW

Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia is a medical doctor with an MBA and PhD in public health and is the chief executive of Higher Health in South Africa. 

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