At least 12 percent of university students in South Africa experience depression, with another 15 percent experiencing anxiety, indicates research. The data, collected from more than 1,300 students in 2013 also revealed that the rates of suicidal ideation are higher among the country's students than in the general population.
"It is a really serious issue," said Cassey Chambers, the operations director at the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG).
Chambers told HuffPost SA that the top three mental health issues affecting South African tertiary students are depression, trauma and suicide/suicidal thoughts.
Although depression symptoms differ, the most common are mood changes, where someone may be persistently irritable, sad or anxious. This may be accompanied by feelings of hopelessness, guilt and helplessness. Having trouble with sleeping and appetite changes are also common symptoms of depression. Thoughts of dying or suicide might also occur.
Chambers says test and exam stress, course work and students' financial situations are usually the triggers for students.
Trauma normally follows a deeply distressing or a disturbing experience. Often people with the condition are plagued by persistent frightening memories or flashbacks of the event and may feel emotionally numbed by the ordeal. Symptoms of depression or anxiety disorder may also present themselves as a result of a traumatic incident.
Chambers says they get a number of calls from students who need counselling because of rape, gender-based violence and incidents of robbery. "We have had to organise ambulance, hospital beds and emergency services as a result of these cases."
"We get calls from students who feel completely helpless and hopeless," said Chambers.
She pointed out that suicide is trickier because it can seemingly come without warning, however, there are usually signs, although they are not as clear from person to person. Common warnings include depression, talk of suicide, abrupt change in personality and behaviour, drop in academic performance, avoiding friends or social activities and feelings of failure and helplessness.
SADAG cautions that although these symptoms may present themselves in isolated cases, it is real cause to worry when they persist over a longer period of time.
Where to get help
SADAG: The South African Depression and Anxiety Group offers free and confidential counselling. Their toll free number is 0800 212 223.
Suicide Crisis Line: You can contact them on 0800 567 567 or SMS 31393.
Lifeline: A 24-hour crisis centre offering free and confidential counselling in all areas. Reachable on 0861 322 322.
Student Wellness Centre: These are normally available on campus and free face to face counselling is provided.
Students who are not sure if their symptoms should be a concern can fill in self-screening questionnaires on SADAG's website.
"If a friend notices the symptoms in their friend, they too should reach out for help, it could literally save a life. So don't wait to get help from a mental health professional," Chambers pointed out.
She cautions people, however, to be more understanding when reached out to. "We get calls from students who fear speaking out in case their friends think less of them or discriminate against them or think of them as weak."
She also advises parents and guardians to offer as much support to their loved ones at tertiary institutions as possible. "Ask them how they are coping, what they are battling with and what helps them cope."
She believes having these conversations, offering support or recommending professional support can make a big difference.