Of Depression And The Rise Of Suicides In Zimbabwean Universities

Depression is increasingly becoming a killer. According to stats, NCDs such as accidents, cancers and even depression have been identified as leading killers globally.

By Kudakwashe Pembere

Matters of the heart are complex and can take a huge toll on a student’s mental faculties. Worse yet if coupled with academic pressures and financial crunches, the impact can be catastrophic.

In Zimbabwe , headlines every year are splashed all over of students ending their lives owing to these pressures.

Depression and anxiety have become increasingly prevalent in today’s college students, with many stating these mental health issues are their biggest barriers to doing well in school. Some studies have found that one in every three students suffer from this mental condition.

Suicide is defined as the act of intentionally causing one’s own deathDepressionbipolar disorderschizophreniapersonality disorders, and substance abuse — including alcoholism and the use of benzodiazepines — are risk factors. If untreated these mental impairments lead to suicides.

College students’ suicide cases are going up every year, Midlands State University having the highest number.

Topping the list on what I have seen as a developing trend in college depression and suicides are relationship fallouts.

There have been two latest suicide cases, which happened within a space of 24 hours linked to cheating. One was from Midlands State University (MSU) in Gweru with the other from National University of Science and Technology (NUST).

At NUST, a bright student named Blessing Mangena threw herself in front of a train.

The first-year student, left a suicide note for her younger sister in which she spoke of her shame at cheating on her boyfriend.

A friend was quoted as saying, “She left a suicide note in which she said she had fallen pregnant by another man, whereas her family only knew her boyfriend Vita.

“She said she was sorry she had to take her own life but she could not bear the shame the revelation of the pregnancy would have brought on her boyfriend, whom she loved very much.”

The NUST suicide comes hard on the heels of the MSU where final year Local Governance Studies student named Walter Temera at MSU hung himself  on a shower pole at his lodgings in Nehosho area amid speculations of finding his lecturer bedding his girlfriend. Another theory thrown around is that the lecturer allegedly wanted to fail his dissertation on grounds that it was highly plagiarised.

What causes depression among college students? Depression has many causes, including genetic factors. But some external factors include, loss, perceived failure and loneliness. These are all things that can occur to a university student and are worsened by most having left home for the first time and hence their social support system is far.

The age groups noted to have high suicide rates is also inclusive of most university students and other associated factors such as substance misuse  also known to be prevalent in university students

Relationships and Suicides

In wide ranging separate interviews with experts, and students, it has been generally agreed that relationships, and academic issues trigger suicides at schools.

“The first thing you have to appreciate is that Depression can occur in the absence of any stressor. However there are what we call PREDISPOSING FACTORS such as genetics and a positive family history of Depression. For example children of depressed parents have a higher risk of depression even when raised in ‘depression-free’ adoptive parents. There are also what we call PRECIPITATING FACTORS such as the constant rigors of academic pursuits. It is these precipitating factors that laymen commonly confuse with ’causes’.

“From our experience in our emergency rooms we have noted that those who attempt to commit suicide are mostly spurred by an acute incident in their relationships not only with their spouse but with their neighbours as well. So yes relationships do play a huge role in parasuicide. But remember, a relationship dispute might just be a trigger but the person would have had underlying symptoms of Depression which have not yet been picked up. As for the MSU student there is a very high probability that he was suffering from Depression even before the lecturer incident,” said an emergency doctor,” Dr David Mukwekwezeke.

A psychiatrist Dr Fungi Mazhandu weighed in saying unstable relationships cause suicide among college students.

“One of the associated factors of suicide is definitely a poor quality relationship. Or the recent loss of relationship due to either, break up or if a partner passes away. So definitely there would be some link to relationships and suicide. A solid relationship would be a preventive measure or what we call positive factor to avoid suicide if you are in a stable relationship, and when contemplating suicide for other reasons. Having a stable relationship with a partner or children can actually be a protective factor,” she said.

Academic Pressures

It becomes too heavy a burden when people suffering depression balance academic pressures alongside financial stresses as well as maintaining a flashy lifestyle.  Students especially at these university colleges scrounge for food, rent, and assignment printing as the pressure mounts when doing a dissertation. Some usually wait for money coming from guardians while others are sponsored by various organisations.

Given the ever-rising costs of college, it’s no surprise that many students are significantly stressed about money. In fact, 70 percent of college students are stressed about finances, according to the 2015 National Student Financial Wellness Study.

Students close to the MSU caser were quoted saying Temera had travelled to Victoria Falls with other students on an educational tour arriving back in Gweru around 2AM.

“Word is that he tried to jump off a moving bus when they were returning from Victoria Falls but was restrained by other students. The reasons for wanting to commit suicide by jumping off a moving bus are unknown,” said a student on condition of anonymity.

He said when the bus arrived at the Gweru Main Campus – it was suggested that Temera should spend the rest of the night under the watch of his best friend at the Main Campus.

“He allegedly sneaked out of his best friend’s room and went to his lodgings in Nehosho. This morning, he started apologising to his friends for all the wrongs he had done to them telling them that he lived a ‘fake’ life. Then around 7:30AM he was found hanging from a truss in a toilet,” said the student.

However, the student said his neighbour told the police that Temera owed some students money which he was failing to pay back.

On the same financial strain note, in 2015, a 26 year old MSU student Learnmore Nyamutsaka downed a poisonous substance in front of the institution’s Administration block in protest against delay of money for his chickens he sold to the school.

The previous year, 2014, three students committed suicide attributable to pressures associated with institutions of higher learning such as high trend lifestyles.

There are many factors that have contributed to an increase in academic pressure on college students, including more involved parents, a more competitive environment and a lack of resilience when faced with failure. College unquestionably demands higher levels of concentration, critical thinking and time management, and students who haven’t yet learned these skills struggle. Worse still when doing your final year.

In 2012, an MSU student Benjamin Mukwarira could not bear the stress of failure. One of the students who was sharing a room with Mukwaira, however, said he could have taken his life by taking some poison after he was shocked to learn that he failed most of his last semester examinations and was supposed to repeat the level.

“Mukwaira had not been able to access his last semester results because the institution had suppressed them owing to some fee arrears. He continued with his studies and was supposed to go for industrial attachment by the end of this semester and his parents had just cleared the arrears when he was shocked to learn that he had failed some of the modules, which means he was supposed to repeat that level,” said one of the students.

He said the shocked Mukwaira spent the whole of Wednesday looking miserable after learning of the results.

“We tried to console him until late at night but we could see from the way he looked that the development had greatly disturbed him as he was saying his parents would not accept it.

“We were then shocked on Thursday morning when we woke up and found that Mukwaira was lying motionless in his blankets.

“This was when we reported the matter to our landlord who in turn reported the matter to the police,” he said.

Indeed handing school work and social pressure is a torrid task. A Media and Society Studies final year student at MSU who requested to be quoted anonymously revealed that depression is real especially when doing a dissertation.

“It’s like when you are changed dissertation supervisors, some lecturers do not want to assist you. They give you a cold shoulder. There is this case I am privy to where this male student whose supervisor declined assisting him citing that lack of knowledge and interest in a certain topic and was advised to come up with an alternative. When submitting his dissertation topic it was approved but the challenge is he cannot commence his research because the supervisor already told him beforehand. Now there are tensions between the two lecturers. One gave the green light but the supervisor is disinterested in the topic. So the student is stuck on what to do and is refusing to begin. So what happens is you will be having depression unsure of what to do next,” said the student.

Substance Abuse

According to Mental Health America (MHA), depression and drinking among college students often goes hand-in-hand — those suffering from depression often drink more and those who drink more often suffer more from depression. Drinking can also lead to risky behavior, the consequences of which can lead to additional mental health problems.

Getting a grip on this side of your life may seem impossible in an atmosphere that often encourages partying, but finding help and support when you’re misusing substances can significantly improve stress, anxiety and depression symptoms.

“Lastly there are what are called PERPETUATING FACTORS such as substance use under which alcohol intake also falls under. An important note is that alcohol has a very strong link with depression. It is a common fact that college students tend to consume large amounts of alcohol,” Dr Mukwekwezeke said.

On Tamera’s death another theory stated that he was drunk when he died.

“Some believe when the student died he was drunk because he too much beer that he got wasted. People should not ignore symptoms of depression at all,” said the Media and Society Studies Student.

What College Universities Can Do

Are these colleges equipped to handle mental illnesses? The answer is to a lesser extent. It boggles the mind how the institutions churn out Psychology students are roam around the streets jobless. It’s just that the economic situation strains the budget to recruit the psychology graduates as counsellors. Having started a medicine program at MSU recently, a psychiatry department where students with mental impairments can be helped should be established.

“There should be more awareness about depression. There should be more awareness about where to seek support. Ideally, a student should be allocated a counsellor as they enter college. Somebody who they have access to. Someone they can see all through their college years but there should be a student centre where they can just walk in and communicate their worries and seek appropriate care. I know there are student clinics but I think there should be more awareness. It’s not just about the physical illnesses but about mental illnesses. And students who suffer from depression can go there and seek support from any local clinic, any general practitioner should be able to refer you, to be able to give you access to the appropriate person which is ideally a psychologist or psychiatrist,” Dr Mazhandu said.

“But currently there is a program that is very well known in Zimbabwe called the Friendship bench which has laymen who are trained in assisting with depression. So if you go to a local clinic and you ask for the Friendship bench team, they should be able to support you. But as always in terms of depression the psychiatry department, at the University of Zimbabwe is always there to assist any student.”

Dr Mukwekwezeke was of the same notion on the impact of Friendship Benches a brainchild of Dr Dixon Chibanda. He said at tertiary clinics institutions should be screenings for depression.

“The answer is very simple. Every tertiary education institution has a clinic of some sort. Every student walks through the doors of that clinic should be screened for Depression and other mental health conditions. There is something called the SSQ-14 (Shona Symptoms Questionnaire) which has 14 questions used to screen for Depression, Anxiety and other mental health conditions. It is also available in English.

“It was designed specifically for Zimbabwe and can be used in the college setting. It can be rolled out in lecture rooms periodically to screen for these conditions. Lastly there is a programme called “Friendship benches’ which is currently running whereby those with depressive symptoms can interact with chosen people who volunteer to listen to them. The basis of that project is that it has been proven that the simple act of talking to someone, airing out your problems, is therapeutic in itself. The percentage of those who actually succeed (i.e those who die) is even lower,” said Dr Mukwekwezeke.

Dr Mukwekwezeke noted that depression is treatable. He also said stigma towards people with depression worsens the situation.

“The core issue is fighting stigma. That is the pith of the matter. That is what Psychiatrists are currently working on; advocacy. Lastly people have to know that Depression is easily treatable. There are two broad classes of interventions; pharmacological and psychological. There are a lot of drugs that can be used (pharmacological treatment) and psychological treatment can also be used in tandem with drugs or by itself.

“Again I cannot stress this enough: 1. Depression is easily treatable. 2. Just talking to someone can be all that is needed to treat Depression, it not even be a psychologist or psychiatrist. Anyone with the time to listen might just be enough for someone struggling with Depression,” he said.

Many a report we have read or head on commission of suicides are lopsided towards males. Could it be that their ‘supposedly high’ intelligence quotient overrides the emotional quotient when there should be a reasonable variation? It’s evident that those who kill themselves are selfish enough to think they think well than others.

Male vs Female Suicide Cases

According to studies as Dr Mazhandu says, males are more successful than females in achieving suicides.

“Depression is more prevalent in females and so is attempted suicide (parasuicide). Males have a higher rate of completed suicides, it’s postulated that they use more extreme or violent methods which are more lethal for example hanging or using weapons. Whereas females tend to favour overdoses or poisons,” she explained.

Dr Mukwekwezeke is of the knowledge that depression has a female preponderance while agreeing with Dr Mazhandu that males often succeed in killing themselves.

“The ratio is Male: Female 1:2. As for suicides is quite interesting. Females have a higher rate of attempting suicide but males have a higher rate pf being successful. In other words when a man decides to kill himself he really means it and usually succeeds.

The rate at which college suicides are happening are a cause for concern.

Insp Goko appealed to members of the public especially students to consult elders or their lecturers when they face problems.

“It is unfortunate that members of the society resort to such extreme measures in the face of challenges. As police we urge members of the public especially these students to value the sanctity of life. In the face of problems they must consult school authorities, elders in the community, their guardians or the police,” he said.

A stitch in time saves nine, so goes a popular saying. Suicidal thoughts grow more solid feeding from frequent mental impairment relapses. If untreated one eventually succumbs to these notions and kills self.

Zimbabwe National Association of Mental Health clinical psychologist and national coordinator Ignatious Murambizi on the prevention of mental impairment relapses like depression of relapses had this to say.

“There are several about things to avoid relapses. One is accepting your condition while knowing what triggers it. Second thing is psycho-social support from the family, friends and relatives. The third item is to adhere to seek early treatment should symptoms begin to show.  The fourth thing is that of staying away from drugs and dangerous substances. The fifth is to adhere to medication.  One also needs to be prayerful. The other thing is to manage your stress to avoid relapsing,” he said.

Suicide is an outright intolerable act. One should be mentally, emotionally fit and strong to float above all challenges.

Mental health groups should get into the universities raising awareness on depression before we lose many lives.

Organisations such as the Depression and Anxiety Association of Zimbabwe (DAAZ) need to go into tertiary institutions and conduct counselling sessions for students. Only this week, two students from different universities have taken their own lives this is serious.

The famous Friendship Bench initiative could fill in the gap of counsellors at these universities assisting students suffering from mental impairments.

“They need to introduce friendship benches at all colleges to address this problem. Counseling provided at all colleges by trained peers. This works and we can help set it up,” Dr Chibanda said.

A former MSU student in my interactions with him was worried with the rise of suicide cases in colleges urging the institutions to have a module on mental health issues as a way of raising awareness as well as helping students to deal with depression arising from academic, financial and social pressures.

“I have to say the matter of students committing suicides at colleges is a major concern that needs to be dealt with. This can be done through making Mental Health as a core module the same way at MSU they do Entrepreneurship, Gender Studies, English and Communication Studies, and the Socio-Economic History Of Zimbabwe Since 1890,” he said.

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