TSHEPANG MOJI

With lockdown headed into its sixth month, many of us have been missing campus. From the Aula lawn, sharing memories of our truly beloved and dearly missed Oom Gert’s, to the freebies at the piazza and the below zero temperatures of the Thuto and Centenary lecture halls. There is a piece of campus we all miss, and this has been well documented by endless memes shared on Instagram. One of the university’s meme pages, @cry_at_up, is one of students’ firm favourites for, as seen in the account’s 14 000 followers on their Instagram platform.

However, more recently the account has taken a bit of a more serious approach. In their Instagram stories, Cry At UP started online discussions that are centred around mental health, a topic that despite many years of not getting the attention it deserves, is starting to have a light shone on it. Mental illness is a very sensitive topic, one that should be treated with the most care. The numbers behind this are frightening, with suicide being the second- highest cause of death amongst people aged 15-29, with the WHO stating that every 40 seconds, a person takes their own life.

With the government-imposed lockdown, it is also very important that, while we make our physical well- being a priority, sanitising, wearing a mask and keeping a safe distance from one another, our mental health should not be neglected – which is exactly what drove the Cry at UP team to begin these sessions, to “add to the conversations around mental health and to put the spotlight on these issues, especially amongst students”.

 

There is a piece of campus we all miss, and this has been well documented by endless memes shared on Instagram.

 

The lockdown has had an adverse impact on the mental health of many South Africans. This sentiment is echoed by Lerato Mahwai, a research associate at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute, who asserted that mental health did not receive the priority and the attention it required when South Africa went into lockdown. Issues like Gender-Based Violence, an already prominent issue in South Africa, saw a surge under the lockdown, with anxiety and depression shooting up. Sadly, suicide rates, especially amongst young women, increased during the lockdown.

For the Cry at UP team, this struggle also carried a personal element, and one of the members of the team shared their mental health story with PDBY.

“When the page started gaining traction last year, I went through a rough time personally. I struggled with depressions and uncontrollable, recurring panic attacks, and if it were not for the assistance of the Student Counselling Unit on campus and a fantastic support system in my friends and family, I probably wouldn’t be here today. I started opening up to the people around me and it was mind-blowing how many other students were going through the same struggles. We all sat in the same lecture hall and yet, nobody said a word out of fear of being looked at differently because of this. Many students felt this way. However, speaking up about my struggles with mental health put me in the in the driver’s seat. I wanted the same for the those around me as well. As it is, students are already under a lot of pressure, so the pressure to have everything figured out should not be one of them.”

 

The lockdown has had an adverse impact on the mental health of many South Africans.

 

With all this considered, Cry at UP’s move to make the greater student community more aware of mental health issues did not go unnoticed, with students actively participating in the online discussions started by the Instagram account. “So far the reaction has been hugely encouraging”, said the team, an indication of the positive reaction from the students regarding this initiative. PDBY caught up with the team behind Cry at UP to talk more about their efforts to shine a light on mental health.

Mental health remains a very large struggle within society, especially within the student community. With the world having commemorated World Suicide Prevention Day on the 10 September, many more initiatives are being run to create awareness and shine the light on mental health. So, the next time you ‘hit the Gram’, be sure to check out and participate in these Cry at UP discussions to be a part of the movement changing the conversation around mental health.

Why did Cry@UP decide to start with the sessions?

For most of the time we have been on Instagram, we have been doing whatever we could to add to the conversation surrounding mental health. We had been thinking about doing these weekly sessions for a while, but we had put it off because none of us were experts in this field. We have had a few first-hand encounters with some of the subject matter, but we do not have all the answers, and it took much to realise that we don’t need to rely on our own experiences to promote these conversations. To that point, nobody truly needed to either. We just needed to create the space for these conversations and that on its own is more than enough.

 

…Cry at UP’s move to make the greater student community more aware of mental health issues did not go unnoticed…

 

How did the students take to the sudden change in the tone of content?

The reaction has been very encouraging. We have not actually received messages from people who were annoyed with the change in content. At the end of the day, we really are a meme page, so we try to limit these discussions to a 24-hour window per week so that there is not a drastic shift from our regular content. But it was phenomenal seeing how positive the reaction towards the shift was.

Why mental health in particular?

Well, there isn’t much of a spotlight being shone on mental health as it is. We’ve spoken to and heard from many of our fellow students who have told me that in their cultures, whether indigenous African cultures or even Afrikaans culture, speaking about mental health is not necessarily encouraged, and in the larger scheme of things, ignored. As students, there is the towering expectation for us to

produce stellar academic results, but our personhood isn’t taken to mind, and that translates to the hesitation at having these discussions. It’s how we’ve been raised, but that doesn’t mean it should be how we live our lives. Adding to this conversation is a big step, and hopefully, by the time we graduate, the conversations around this will be of a different kind.

 

…whether indigenous African cultures or even Afrikaans culture, speaking about mental health is not necessarily encouraged, and in the larger scheme of things, ignored.

 

What topics have you covered so far?

So far, we have covered topics like depression, anxiety, OCD, ADHD, General Anxiety Disorder, as well as panic attacks and suicide. We have also collaborated with the University’s Psychology society, the Psyche Society (@psychesociety.up), with the conversation revolving around eating disorders.

What has the feedback from students been like as a result of this new feature?

Our followers have been hugely instrumental to adding real value to the discussions. It would be nowhere near as insightful as it has been without their collective experiences and we are immensely grateful for that. We have received tons of messages from students who have found these talks helpful, not just personally, but in relationships they have with friends and family. Many have also messaged us. They have been really welcoming with the discussions, and very enthusiastic about it, contributing as much and as best as they can. They have truly been the cornerstone of the entire initiative, and we have no doubt that their participation will do a lot of good.

What does the future look like for these discussions?

We are looking to keep these talks going for as long as we possibly can and for as long as the students find it helpful. Once we have covered as many general topics as we can think of, we will look towards the other aspects of mental health that perhaps get overlooked. Ideally, we are looking to continue adding to these conversations right up until we leave UP.

How do you plan on managing to balance between the usual memes and the more serious discussions going forward?

Looking ahead, we will definitely be remaining faithful to being a source of entertainment and university culture. Being a university student is rough and laughing through the pain is perhaps the most [UP] thing to do, but ultimately, we are lucky to be here. Any amount of good that we can do in that short space of time is more than enough for us. Life is already serious enough as is, but if we can occasionally encourage discussion in these spaces, we know we are doing something right.

Tell us more about the levels of student participation and involvement in these sessions.

The students have been absolutely amazing. The real value of these segments is what comes after we open the floor to our followers. By doing so, we give them the chance to share their experiences and offer advice to others who may be going through the same thing. Every week, we are inundated with the best responses, and we are beyond grateful for all of their support and contributions to these discussions.

Illustration: Giovanna Janos

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