“Ask for help. It's OK to do so, even though you might think you're now supposed to be an adult and therefore should be able to cope on your own." That, in a nutshell, is the message about mental health that associate professor Jason Bantjes of the Institute for Life Course Health Research in the Department of Global Health wishes more young people, and especially students, could hear, appreciate and take to heart.
“There's this idea that you achieve adulthood when you become independent, and that independence means that you don't ask for help, even though you might be struggling academically, or with depression, or anxiety. That's troublesome, because it keeps students from accessing care until there is a crisis, until it is too late. We should somehow encourage interdependence, that it's OK to ask for help, even as you become an adult."
Then the counselling psychologist who hails from Durban adds: “We need to work out how we can reach more students. We need to recognise the need for care, and to destigmatise help seeking and care."
While Prof Bantjes also works in the field of sport within the context of disability, a major part of his effort is focused on the wellbeing of young adults and suicide prevention.
Crossing over from high school to university or another post-matric institution constitutes a major transition phase and adjustment period for young people, as they move away from the familiarity of their family homes into the big unknown. Prof Bantjes therefore says it's important that parents try find a balance between helping their children launch independently into the world, while still staying connected with them and being alert about their wellbeing.
He explains: “Adolescence and young adulthood are the age where mental problems often emerge, if they are going to emerge. The drop-out rate among first years is also high, with many never even reaching second year."
A WHO World Mental Health International College Student (WMH-ICS) Initiative that he has been part of since 2016 has recently conducted a national student mental health survey that collected data from 80 000 students on 22 South African university campuses. The survey, which was only recently completed, promises to provide useful insights into the mental health care needs of the country's students. This is important, especially given previous research that approximately 30% of students experience mental health problems.
“It's not the majority of students, but it is a significantly large percentage. What is even more scary is that our research shows that only about a third of students with mental health problems get the help that they need. That's interesting and worrying at the same time."
He hopes that the research he is doing will be used fruitfully by universities and other post-matric institutions in South Africa wanting to plan and think strategically about supporting the mental health of their student corps.
“When it comes to treatments, we need to be able to offer students a menu of different options. We are never going to reach all students with mental health issues if we stick to the traditional model of one-on-one therapies which stretch over weeks or months. It's never going to work. And besides that, such approaches to treatment do not appeal to some young people," says Prof Bantjes, whose research is supported by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) Mid-career Scientist Programme. “Group interventions and e-interventions are some of the ways we may be able to reach everyone that needs help.
Options such as peer-to-peer interventions, which have worked well on campuses in terms of HIV-related issues, should also be explored more.
“It's important to match people to the right intervention, and to ones that are acceptable to South African students, culturally appropriate and informed by our students' actual situations. We cannot just import solutions from other places without consulting students and getting their input. It is a lovely collaborative kind of process," says Prof Bantjes, who believes that South African students might be more open to alternative care options such as the use of traditional healers, mindfulness based interventions and digital solutions.
Our interview, quite serendipitously, takes place around World Mental Health Day. Earlier in the morning, his article with the provocative title “There's an app for that: mental health treatment has come a long way since the days of lobotomies" was published on The Daily Maverick website.
Technology has, even before COVID-19, increased access to mental health care. Related research projects he is working includes a pilot study about the effectiveness of a ten week internet-based intervention programme, and a self-guided treatment programme for students with depression. One about students' response to the use of mental health apps is in the pipeline.
Prof Bantjes however warns that it should never dehumanise.
“Technology could be useful alongside face-to-face therapy sessions to prevent potential relapses and to support patients' post-recovery," he notes. “We need to work out how to retain some human relationship and contact yet leverage the benefits of technology. That's a challenge."
Already a member of the Institute for Life Course Health Research in the Department of Global Health at SU, he will soon be moving “office" from the Psychology Department in the leafy streets of Stellenbosch to Tygerberg campus to take up a more research-orientated position that will see him look into the promotion of mental health through different life stages.
“The opportunity to research and teach was part of the allure of joining a university. It's the ability to teach while investigating things that I find interesting," reflects Prof Bantjes, who is a prolific author of both scholarly and popular articles on mental health issues.
When asked how he decided to become a psychologist, he lightly notes “by accident". The matter, however, is far from simple.
In the 1990s he taught maths and economics at two boys' schools in KwaZulu-Natal, before later in the decade setting his sights on becoming a doctor.
During his medical studies, however, his eyesight started failing. He learnt that he had uncurable macular degeneration. Because of damage to his retina it started causing loss in the centre of his field of vision.
“When I realised that I would not be able to work as a doctor because I could not see the detail required to practice medicine, I switched over to psychology, which, like teaching and medicine, is also a so-called helping profession," he quite matter-of-factly explains the ins and outs of what must have been a major life event.
He may not drive, struggles to make out faces and uses adaptive technologies to read paper-based texts. That said, in the week before our interview he was hiking in the Tsitsikamma Forest.
Hiking, along with regular yoga practice, helps him unwind from the stresses of working daily with the mental health problems of young people, the well-being of Paralympic athletes and issues and stereotypes surrounding sport and recreation for the disabled.
“I'm interested in how movement and organised sport can be used to promote health, but also include or exclude people, how it perpetuates stereotypes and mimics what happens in broader society."
He counts himself lucky that he's able to find fulfilment within an academic setting, first as teacher and now increasingly as a researcher.
“If there's anything that I want to do in the next few years it is to raise more awareness of academic ableism and the keeping of disabled people out of academia. It is still so rare to come across people with disabilities in universities. This is something that most universities, including Stellenbosch University, needs to address as part of the important transformation process."
For the next few weeks, we will introduce you to some of SU`s researchers whose work is featured in the latest edition of Research at Stellenbosch University.