Varsity Vibe: Normalising conversations about mental health in the university space 

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As this Mental Health Awareness month draws to a close, university students speak to Health-e News about exam anxiety, financial stress and how the uncertainty brought about COVID-19 has impacted them.

“Although the exam season has always been stressful, the pandemic has created more uncertainty and added stress than before for me,” said 19-year-old Lelethu Bangani.

 Bangani is a Strategic Brand Communication first-year student at Vega. She said although talking about mental health has become easier and more common due to social media, more needs to be done to normalise these conversations.

 “Having more conversations about mental health is necessary because not everyone comes from the same background and was exposed to an environment where conversations about mental health were considered to be normal. `So raising awareness is important so that asking for help is easier.”

A study on how the first three months of lockdown impacted university students in South Africa found that 72percent had an extreme fear of contracting the virus, a third of the respondents reported extreme discomfort during the lockdown. This was caused by academic isolation, feeling as though life was on hold, and being unable to see family and friends. Some had difficulty accessing food. The study found that more than half of the respondents  experienced financial losses and increased financial dependency. They were especially worried about increasing economic threats to possible future employment.

Study shows students experienced serious discomfort

The research cites the difficulty in adjusting academically, students’ serious discomfort during the lockdown, and feeling socially isolated as major contributions to emotional difficulties.

Social, academic, spiritual, and physical wellbeing and positive coping strategies influenced both emotional difficulties and mental health.  Stress was increased by prolonged quarantine, fear of  infection, frustration, inadequate information and supplies, financial loss, and stigma. The research established a link between deteriorating mental health and the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns. The reasons given included increased socioeconomic disparities and job losses 

The research found that first-year students, those with limited resources, and female students living in informal settlements, were the most vulnerable to experiencing emotional difficulties in their early years of study.

Bangani said she maintained her mental health by making sure she made time to unwind.

 “One of my coping mechanisms is to always make time to do the things I love, amid the exam stress, academic commitments, and maintaining my relationships with friends and family, I try to make time to paint and create different make-up looks like a great way to relax. “

 “Mental illness is normal, conversations about it aren’t”

 Lesedi Kgashane, 19, from Pretoria is studying Mining Engineering at Wits University. He agreed many students are struggling with mental health issues, but says they don’t always have an outlet to talk about their challenges.

 “We still have many cases of students dropping out of school because they aren’t performing well academically due to their mental health challenges which come from the pressure of being in university. Some students even commit suicide in severe cases of depression.”

Kgashane said he manages feelings of anxiety and panic by talking about the issues that he goes through and not bottling anything inside.

He says financial stress is difficult to deal with but there are tools to help. He said the Varsity Vibes app has helped him.


 “I have been using the Varsity Vibe app for two years now and it has helped me in more ways than one. At the beginning of the year, I was able to buy my textbooks at a discounted price, and buy other stationery and clothes. It has relieved my financial stress because of the available discounts, mostly of things that I use daily,” he said. 

 An app with a difference

 Varsity Vibe app is offering deals and discounts with companies to improve the mental health and well-being of students all over SA. Marketing Manager at Varsity Vibe, Donna Leigh Mohammed, said the platform is focused on helping improve the wellbeing of young South Africans while they study.

 “We understand that being a student does come with a lot of pressure, financial pressure, pressure to perform academically and then just dealing with the challenges of being a young adult.”

 The app currently has over 100 partners at over 2000 stores all over the country. Mohamed said it has over 270 000 members.  The app helps students can access fitness facilities at discounted joining fees to promote a healthy lifestyle to alleviate stress.

 “Exercise is a scientifically proven mood booster, decreasing symptoms of both depression and anxiety by increasing endorphin levels.”

TEARS Foundation and Sivuka Youth Development are also accessible to provide students with direct contact to the organisations that aid survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and other traumatic events.

Mohammed noted that each of the partnerships contributed to improving the well-being and health of students. – Health-e News


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