Suicide spike jolts varsities

Academic and financial pressures taking their toll on students

13 November 2017 - 05:00 By OLIVIA DECELLES, FARREN COLLINS and Aisha Hauser
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The University of Cape Town.
The University of Cape Town.

A spike in suspected suicides at South Africa's top university has campus managers seeking the help of depression and anxiety experts.

Six University of Cape Town students have died from unnatural causes on its campuses so far this year.

Last year it was three, with the university management establishing a mental health task team after the deaths.

Both UCT and Pretoria University have established depression hotlines for students, with the universities employing additional psychologists.

UCT spokesman Elijah Moholola said: "The task team has already been asked to look at trends of student deaths to better understand the profile of students who have passed away over the past five years.

"The team reviewed all of our policies and advised that we should increase services - both preventive and responsive."

Students suspect that the six UCT deaths this year might be due to high levels of stress.

Recent research by Stellenbosch University's psychology department found that over 24% of a sample of South African students reported some form of suicidal thoughts in the two weeks before they were interviewed for the study.

Pretoria University spokesman Jocelyn Newmarch said it first implemented a crisis line in 2003 "when we realised that there is a need for students to be able to report and request support with regard to crisis situations".

Although UCT and the police have been unable to confirm if the six deaths were suicides, the student representative council said it knew of some which were suicide.

UCT SRC president Karabo Khakhau said she knew of at least one death that had been a suicide. "It took place in my residence.

"There is a lot of pressure and stress on students. Mental health is sometimes not a priority.

"The recent deaths can be indirectly related to the stresses of the #FeesMustFall movement."

UCT recently used R650000 from an anonymous donor to boost the capacity of its student wellness services.

Moholola said because of the number of student deaths this year UCT had prioritised the implementation of mental health policies.

Cassey Chambers, SA Depression and Anxiety Group operations director, said: "The UCT Student Care line was established in 2016 as a direct response to the number of mental health issues and suicides happening among UCT students."

She said this time of the year was very stressful and students were under increased pressure to perform well.

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