Zimbabwe is being gripped by a gruesome pandemic, which finds itself embedded within the ongoing Covid-19 global health crisis.
The number of people opting to end their lives by way of suicide is increasing and a significant percentage is accounted for among students at institutions of higher learning.
Over the past month, two students from Harare Polytechnic and Great Zimbabwe University committed suicide.
These publicised incidents, both emanating from romantic relationships gone wrong, have brought into focus the quality of mental health support among university students.
Challenges being experienced today are not new, but they have been left to simmer for long.
Suicide is defined by the World Health Organisation as the act of deliberately killing oneself.
Risk factors for suicide include mental disorder, especially depression, and neurological disorders, cancer and HIV infection among others.
In 2016, a research by Dr Julia Mutambara titled Prevalence of suicidal ideation and hopelessness among students at a state university in Zimbabwe showed that there is a sustained presence of mental health complications within the college environment.
“Four percent of the study participants felt they were better off dead, 14.7 percent said they sometimes had this feeling, 9.8 percent reported that they had tried to commit suicide,” the study says.
Students who participated in the study said they bear anxieties about their futures.
“Eighteen percent of the students said their lives seemed bleak, 35.3 percent said life is bleak for them, 23.5 percent said no matter what they do, and things did not seem to get better.
43.1 percent said things did not go their way, 16.7 percent and 14.7 percent said their situations were hopeless and they felt they did not amount to anything,” read findings from the research.
Educationists believe that despite there being what would appear like limited prospects for students currently enrolled, education can be the first step towards solving some mental health challenges being faced by the youth.
Senior Lecturer in the University of Zimbabwe Department of Technical Education, Dr Peter Kwaira
“Drug abuse among our youth and other mental health issues shows that there is something that needs to be corrected in our educational culture.
We need to educate our children (students) to understand the value of life, beyond material considerations,” said Dr Kwaira.
As the dictum “education is the key to success” has been repeated ad nauseam, students sometimes fail to handle the reality that although a degree or diploma may give a fighting chance, living conditions may remain as they are.
This has seen despair engulfing professionals under incubation, especially when they try to venture into romantic relationships which are in contemporary times.
It has also been observed that the entry into a life of sexual activity has to be managed, through access to information and services to safeguard the peace of mind of the students who would be trying to come to terms with the freedoms enjoyed in early adulthood.
The Students And Youth Working on reproductive Health Action Team (SAWHAT) executive director Jimmy Wilford said there is need to ensure the availability of outlets where young people can seek help when they run into obstacles in their social lives, especially around relationships.
“It is our observation that the suicidal cases by young people oscillate around infidelity and lack of counselling on how the same should manage their relationships. Sex and relationships do anchor the whole sexual and reproductive health subject and our calling as SAYWHAT is to advocate for the respect of the young people’s sexual and reproductive health rights,” said Wilford.
Students were urged to be wary of engaging with older partners, who may bring with them complications and baggage.
“SAYWHAT envisions a healthy generation of young people whose sexual and reproductive health rights are observed. Sometimes we read it in the press about young people who commit suicide because they have been dumped by their partners who happened to be older people anyway.
“While we may not prescribe that people of the same age group should date the same, it is very concerning that some older people prefer sexual relationships with young people where they will be abusing their partners.”
He added; “We have also heard about the “thigh for a mark” culture where female students are asked to offer sexual favors in return for good marks. Issues of mental health and depression later catch up with these young people and eventually suicidal thoughts start to trickle in.”
SAWHAT believes that fighting the scourge requires a layered approach, which involves the family, the institutions of higher learning and community health facilities.
To live to its calling billing, SAYWHAT has established a 24-hour counselling platform accessed at zero airtime balance on 577 toll free number, which students and young people alike can exploit for the good of their sexual and reproductive health.
“Our call centre is a one-stop-shop that we established to offer non-medical sexual and reproductive related services that range from counselling, social support, gender-based violence among a pool of issues. We have qualified and experienced personnel who are available all the times to render the services whenever needed,” Wilford said.
Zimbabwe has an estimated university and college student population of 300 000.
The government said it is concerned with the suicide cases being recorded among students in colleges and universities.
Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education, Innovation, Science and Technology Development Professor Amon Murwira said they are probing possible causes and underlying issues.
“We are looking into urgently improving psychosocial support services at our institutions. At the University of Zimbabwe, Great Zimbabwe University and other institutions there are health clinics where students can get help.
We also want to investigate the cause of these mental health issues which are leading to unfortunate occurrences. Once we understand what is leading to these cases, we can then offer a long term solution,” said Professor Murwira.
However, this short term intervention proferred may not be sufficient to address the issue.
Most if not all institutions of higher learning do not have a specialist mental health nurse or psychiatrist.
The shortage extends to the country, beyond universities and colleges.
The Ministry of Health and Child Care’s National Strategic Plan for Mental Health Services (2019-2023), says there are 917 registered mental health nurses in the country and 17 psychiatrists.
“There are six Clinical psychologists, 13 Clinical Social Workers and 10 Occupational Therapists working in the Government sector. There is a high patient to staff ratio across all disciplines, highlighting a need to recruit and retain mental health professionals and to increase numbers in all available training programmes,” the plan states.
This shows that even in the event that those suffering from mental health complications decide to seek help, it may not be readily available due to lack of expertise.
The gap has led to the birth of community-based interventions like Friendship Benches, run by Dr Dixon Chibanda, which uses community health workers and elderly members of society as counsellors.