The Bipolar University- Wilton Schereka
I am hesitant as I begin to write this. I have already been marked by the university as a trouble maker, provoking for change on many fronts. One of my battles has been the struggle to get institutional policy in place that directly engages with issues of mental health. There is a policy document online for the University of the Western Cape, which states many things, but at no point does it mention the debilitating nature of mental health illness in any way. I would like to stress this point at the outset, as someone living with bipolar mood disorder, it can be extremely debilitating. It forces one into reclusiveness, often unable to eat or sleep for days, sometimes weeks. This condition is one that is so destructive that it can tear families apart, only amplifying the trauma and pain. So for there to be no official statement on the impact of mental health issues, what channels are available for help and what institutional policy is in place once a person suffering needs to be accommodated in terms of time (deadlines and time away from the institution), is indicative of an institutional lack of empathy.
What prompted me to pursue this question at UWC so firmly was a recent incident that was widely publicised regarding a student at UCT. She had been through a lot, between the traumatic events of student protest and the impact of loss in the family. This student had already pleaded for sympathy. But a certain professor (one who I will leave unnamed for fear of recourse) decided that her case did not warrant any sympathy. (This is also a professor who seems to think that Africa has not produced philosophy, but that’s another matter). As the head of a major department at what is supposed to be South Africa’s leading university, I found it absolutely ludicrous that he would not permit this student the time to gather herself, both mentally and emotionally.
After the above-mentioned incident, I decided that it should be my duty to turn my attention to my home institution, to ensure that this does not happen again to any student in future at UWC, and hopefully anywhere else. Upon the recommendation of students with physical disability, I contacted a particular individual employed by the university to deal with matters of disability and other learning impairments. I called to her office and was promised a return call. I emailed her personally, and two months later have still not received a response. I then asked a friend, who has been active in liaising with faculty and support staff, if she would be able to make a few calls and see if there is any way we can get our hands on the latest institutional policy document. She was luckier than I and got me a few email addresses, to which I had sent emails requesting knowledge about the university’s position on mental health issues.
The final blow came, when at the annual winter school of the centre I work at, the question was put to the professors in the room, asking if they know we are broken: the response was a dismissive, though well intended, “we were all broken at some point.”. The professor in question who answered, a great man and scholar, missed the urgency of the question. The reality is that students are suffering to the point that it is possible we will never recover. With the changing social and economic landscape of South Africa, the possibilities and anxieties of finding jobs and homes once graduating are dominating our psyche. We are losing the battle within ourselves, and our institutions are wholly ignorant of this fact.
There are students who go days with only a few slices of bread to eat on residences. There are students who are prostituting themselves in order to get by. Indeed, there are students squatting, homeless, in order to get this piece of paper that brings with it the promise of freedom from the bounds of crippling anxiety and depression. I make no bones about it, we are in a dire situation, contemplating suicide is not an exception anymore. So I will continue to hound my institution to provide recognition and support for those students struggling with mental health issues, and I hope you will too.