Taking Off the Masks is a collaboration between students and the Student Affairs' Centre for Student Counselling and Development (CSCD) with a view to challenge unhealthy ideas about mental wellness and encourage open conversations about dealing with problems. It is a platform where students can read about other's real struggles and see that they're not alone in facing problems - that there is hope.
It is hard enough to deal with challenges like anxiety, losing someone close to you or relationship problems, but feeling that you have to hide what you are going through can be an unnecessary burden, as well as prevent you from seeking help.
The idea for Taking Off the Masks sprung from group conversations where students “take off their masks" and shared with their peers about their mental wellness. Students often describe the pressure they feel to appear okay, that becomes like a mask hiding their true experiences. As they share their challenges with one another in safe conversations, they often note great relief in realising that their peers share many of their struggles and that they are not alone in dealing with their problems.
Unhealthy beliefs about mental wellness are found on University campuses worldwide. Thoughts as: “I always need to push on and cope", “If you struggle with anxiety or stress you are weak" or “Going to therapy means there's something wrong with me" are common amongst students. These beliefs stop people from seeking assistance or opening up about their problems, leading to them feeling alone and disempowered.
The reality is that everyone deals with problems at some point and there are people around you who may be struggling too, even if they don't show it. There are times when we all need support, whether from a friend or from a professional. The students who have shared their stories here show strength through vulnerability by telling their stories about facing challenges and finding different paths in navigating their way through they're problems. These stories challenge a single notion of success and show that it is normal to go through challenges.
To find out more about the services available at the Unit of Psychotherapeutic and Support Services please visit our website at https://www.sun.ac.za/english/learning-teaching/student-affairs/cscd/psychotherapeutic-support-services Students who require after hours crisis counselling can call ER24 at 010 205 3032. More information is available at https://www.sun.ac.za/english/learning-teaching/student-affairs/cscd/psychotherapeutic-support-services/our-services/24-hour-crisis-service
If you'd like to find out more about Taking Off the Masks, you're welcome to email Mrs Liani Joubert (Clinical Psychologist at the Centre for Student Counselling and Development) at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story 1: Coping with failure
I am from a small town in the Eastern Cape. I completed my undergraduate degree at the University back home and am proud to now be doing my postgraduate degree at the US, one of the world ranking Universities.
At the beginning of the year, everything was new to me here…new experience, new people. Everything was fine until I failed an exam. I've never failed before.
It felt like my world was coming to an end… It felt like I'm nothing but a failure, I was so disappointed and felt that I'm not good enough. Also I didn't have anyone to talk to. It was so overwhelming. Negative voices running in my mind telling me I'll never make it.
Until one day when I decided to seek help. And through talking to someone and also reading my Bible and praying I started to deal with the failure. These things helped me to bounce back and gain strength again.
I've learnt that failing is not the end of the world but a learning experience. Do not allow one or two failures to define you. Failure is part of life and is an opportunity for growth. If you fear failure constantly, you might miss out on opportunities for learning and developing.
My route to success was through failure.
Story 2: Dealing with the effects of violence back home
I grew up with domestic violence and financial abuse in our home. Coming to university, it was incredibly hard to be on campus while knowing that the violence and abuse back home was continuing. I feared for the safety and well-being of my siblings and these worries occupied my mind constantly. It distracted me, making it difficult to cope and to focus. My only real focus was to try and figure out how I could help with the situation back home. I felt so guilty, because it felt that due to being away I was escaping the hard situation at home, but my siblings still had to deal with it. The reality was that I could not change the situation back home. I felt like I was betraying them.
A few years down the line, I had failed multiple times. I had to apply for re-admission. At this point I seriously thought of dropping out of my course. I had lost sight of my dreams…
A turning point was to start speaking about my challenges in therapy. I started seeing my situation in a new way and acknowledged what was really going on. I realised that I felt trapped in a cycle of worrying and this was not helping the situation. I came to the conclusion that the situation back home was ruling over my life. This was not what I wanted. Eventually I asked myself what I could do about the way things were. I had to accept that I can’t change the situation back home, it’s not in my hands. What I can control is my reaction to the challenges in my life.
I started opening up to friends bit by bit. Before I had felt that I should deal with it all on my own and hide it from my friends, so speaking to them was hard. But opening up was getting rid of an added unnecessary burden and to my surprise my friends actually wanted to support me and appreciated that I shared my struggles with them.
I started asking myself “what do I want for my life and my future” and taking small steps in terms of this. Eventually this approach become my strength. An important realisation was that by committing my studies and my future, I can be a part of the solution for my siblings in the future.
As I started taking control back of my life, I started remembering my dreams again. My passion for my studies came back bit by bit and I remembered what I was working towards in my academics.
Another dream I reconnected with was to become involved with a charity organization, as this has always been close to my heart. This helped me to feel I could really make a difference. I also have always wanted to start my own small business for an income. One step at a time I got this up and running and recently I even started investing money with my profits, which I could have never imagined at the beginning of this year!
It’s been a hard process and when difficult things happen at home, it still affects me as I try to support my siblings. It helps me though to remember that I stand against the effects of the abuse and issues at home in my life, by reclaiming my life.
Story 3: Not giving up
After years of trying to find a job, I took the decision to go back to school. However, that did not come without costs for me. I had to write my NBT admissions test on an empty stomach, as there was no food at my place. I only had a taxi fare for going there and had to walk all the way home after. When the time came to go to Stellenbosch as first year, I faced further great challenges. I had no money for a bus fare nor did my mother. Nevertheless, I was not going to let that discourage me to go to university. I decided to hitch hike without even a cent to buy myself food on the road. I managed to arrive at university after three days on the road without having something to eat.
In my first year I especially struggled at University. Eventually I had a conversation with a psychologist at the CSCD. This helped me so much. I could start speaking about problems that I’d never spoken to anyone about. I realized that I am not alone and that there are many students who struggle financially at Stellenbosch. I think what helped me was to ask for help and get support. I saw that when I reached out for help, people were willing to assist.
Next year will be my final year.