New Vision (Kampala)

30 November 2012

Uganda: Study Stress - Deal With It or It Deals You a Blow

TWO months before he took his own life, Emmanuel Kagyina had hinted in his Facebook posts that he was troubled. He cited everything from stress, depression, to being neglected by his parents.

He even talked about death in one post in September. "Is it okay for someone to commit suicide if he is overpowered by problems?"

No one read between the lines. But a few weeks ago, the 22-year-old killed himself. It is then that it became clear that he had been referring to himself. Kagyina was a second-year student at Makerere University.

The premature end of such a promising young life is hard to understand. But it represents just a drop in the ocean of the underlying emotional challenges that many students are grappling with.

It is difficult for universities to predict that their students are stressed. While most universities have guidance and counselling centres, seeking help is often a student's personal choice. In an environment like a university where everyone minds their own business, it is almost impossible to identify a depressed person.

But stress is not only in universities. For instance, there have been media reports of secondary school students attacked by 'ghosts' and some head teachers have gone an extra mile to bring traditional healers to 'cleanse' them.

Strikes in universities and schools also take centre-stage at this time of the year or towards examinations. But the reason for all this confusion stems from the students' way of living and the decisions they make.

At the beginning of the semester, Godfrey, a first-year student at Kyambogo University, thought he had all the time to have fun. He even dared to "eat" his tuition fees, hoping he would recover it before examinations. Three months down the road, he has missed all the courseworks and tests, which means he has to re-sit some papers.

Godfrey has not paid a single penny, yet his friends are already preparing for their end-of-semester examinations. He continues to drink himself silly. "I won't kill myself over a degree," he says, "I need some relief. I need a break from books."

For Tricia, a graduate from Nkumba University, the stress came from not just financial troubles, but also from the desire prove to the world that she could make it. The peasant's daughter from Hoima district was over the moon when she got a part-time job to cater for her fees. But she soon sank into a debilitating depression.

"My boss could not understand me. I was in debt and I had fees to pay. My boyfriend also dumped me after making me pregnant," Tricia, now a single mother, recounts.

Victor Locoro, a lecturer of psychology at Kyambogo University, says: "It may be easier to tell a student who is schizophrenic than to identify and help a student who is stressed or a drug addict. Some drink, but they do not show signs of addiction."

Locoro is, however, quick to point out that he can judge from the poor performance in class, absenteeism, dullness and failure to pay tuition fees in time that a student has problems.

Much as it is important that lecturers help students with their personal lives, not all students who have problems welcome advice.

"Many times, few open up," says Locoro, adding that with a class of about 400 students, it is difficult to follow up each individually.

Dan Kazungu, a lecturer of mass communication at Busoga University, agrees. "If you have a big class, it is hard to know a student is disturbed or has not attended class. But if is a small class, I can tell if I ask a simple question and you are totally off the topic or are absent-minded," he says.

Kazungu adds that although he would love to follow up students, he barely has time to do so due to his heavy workload.

Part of the reason why stress continues to abound at the university is the assumption that a student is too mature to need help. Bernard Eceru, the spokesperson at Nkumba University, says much as the university has a counselling centre, he would still expect students to speak out.

"When you are sick, you either go to a doctor or at least talk to someone who will then alert a doctor on your behalf," says Eceru.

Like Kagyina, if not helped, many students contemplate suicide.

Rev. Peter Matovu, the head of counselling at Nkumba University, says: "When I joined Nkumba, there were so many suicide attempts, but they stopped when we set up Munange Counselling Centre, where students also help us to identify those who need help.'

Matovu, who is also a psychologist, adds that in his counselling career, family problems account for about 79% of a student's depression, academics 20%, while the others are relationships.

While there are no statistics on the number of students who have committed suicide in any given semester, the Police admits that it is common.

"We are doing investigations on why they occur," says Julius Ceasor Tusingwire, the officer in charge of Wandegeya Police station.

In the US, a 2011 study shows that the leading cause of death is among university students is suicide. The University of Virginia researchers asked more than 1,150 colleges to share their mortality rates for students between the ages of 18 and 24.

For every 100,000 students, there were over six suicides. The reasons cited included difficult academic life, high tuition fees and the pressure to maintain a decent life. For many young people, college meant cutting ties with their parents and experiencing life on their own.

While the newfound independence is refreshing, it can also be lonely. Students struggle to make friends and find their niche in an unfamiliar environment where they are sometimes seen as just another number and many become lost in the shuffle. Coupled with this, most students also find the semester system challenging and difficult and realise that they work many hours not to retake a paper.

In Britain, there is debate that colleges take an extensive amount of adjustment and many students cannot fully cope without help. It is also becoming very difficult for universities to have the luxury to keep up with counselling and psychological services, due to tough economic times.

Rev. Matovu also explains that eventually, when the student is left to "die silently", the mind is disturbed. There is also an explosion in the form of agitation - probably explaining why strikes tend to rock universities towards examination time.

Locoro also argues that this also accounts for the drop-out rate in universities.

"Certainly if one is not seeking help and resorts to drinking, he or she drops out because they have papers to re-sit. If someone has problems at home, or fails to pay tuition in time, it affects their studies," he says.

Statistics show that the number of people who graduate in a given year is much lower than the number of students who enroll for any given course.

What parents say

Kagyina left a note explaining that he committed suicide due to family-related hiccups. "Dad, it's true that I wronged you in some aspects but it is also true that me and you did not share our relationship to the required standards," he told his father in the note. It is a message which may not really have helped heal the wounds. But what message does it relay.

Alice Bangira, a mother of two, says sometimes she is hard on her child, but she means well. "No parent means badly even if he or she shouts at you," she says. Her colleague, Fiona, 43, says: "These children are just so sensitive, for nothing."

Bottom-line

Rita Namisango, the spokesperson of Makerere University, says they offer advice during the orientation week for freshers, which is normally at the beginning of the academic year.

During this time, students are given as much advice as possible on where to seek help and the challenges they are likely to face while at the university, and how to overcome them.

Namisango adds that each college also has an open day where students interact freely with the staff members and fellow students.

Lawrence Madete, Kyambogo University's spokesperson, also says they have regular induction programmes. "We tell them various things, to prepare them for university life," he says.

He adds that the university also have a guidance and counselling unit.

At Uganda Christian University Mukono, Prima Kesande, the communications manager, says follow ups are done on students to know their backgrounds and the challenges they might be facing beyond academics. "We know who loses a parent, who has an accident. We are a small and close community."

Rev. Matovu adds that observing a student's body language can help if they have problems or not. "Maybe she never laughs or jokes with other people! Or if hands are always planted on their cheeks, try to find out why," he says.

Rev. Matovu says during his tenure at Makerere University, he used to move from faculty to faculty, or at times from one hall of residence to the next talking to young people.

"When I meet students, especially the females, I start with a joke that they are my wives and they laugh. When they laugh, they open up and it is an opportunity for me to counsel them," he says, adding that a lot of female students are faced with relationship problems.

How to manage stress

Time management is a way to find the time for more of the things you want and need to do. Decide on what is urgent and what can wait.

Watch your lifestyle.

Find a balance between personal, work and family needs.

Have a sense of purpose in life. Many people find meaning through connections with family, friends, jobs, or volunteer work.

Get enough sleep. Your body recovers from the stresses of the day while you are sleeping.

Eat a healthy diet, limit how much alcohol you drink, and don't smoke.

Exercise. Even moderate exercise, such as taking a daily walk.

Avoid dwelling on negative thoughts since they trigger your body's stress response.

Assertive communication helps you express how you feel in a thoughtful, tactful way.

Share your problems by talking to people you trust.

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