When I left my lecturing job at Rhodes University in 2006, one of the reasons was because, as I put it then, “I was tired of being a glorified governess to the new South African bourgeoisie”.

My mind was made up after a first-year class, led by the class reps, demanded I remove a book from the recommended reading list because, they shouted at me, “there were only six copies of the book on the library shelves and the short-loan copy is always out”. So I shouted back and left the lecture in a huff, annoyed that the students believed the library should stock multiple copies of one book for their convenience.

Having been a Rhodes student myself, I sort of understood why they would make absurd demands.  Rhodes is a space of relative material comfort, and the dominant image of the university in our minds as students was that it was a space in which we ought to lack for nothing.

Rhodes is privileged as a small, well-run, relatively safe campus where students can choose between several meal choices in the dining hall, have internet practically on tap, 24-hour computer labs, a gym, pretty residence rooms and DStv in the common rooms, among many other nice things that are meant to create a conducive environment for learning.

It took me a little by surprise, then, to observe and hear that many of our students are struggling with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety attacks and stress, and that the numbers are on the increase. Colleagues who work in the residence system report regular visits to the local hospital where they have to accompany students who are panicking to near collapse.

It appears a significant portion of our students are just not coping with the demands of university life. I have been told that the university is already researching the situation so that it can formulate an appropriate response to support the students.

While we await research that will give us hard data, I have been having discussions with colleagues to gauge what they think is going on. Apart from clinically validated cases, I want to put forward the suggestion that the increase in anxiety among students may have two interrelated causes:

  1. An unconscious sense that the promises of modern life are a sham – that the shiny dream of professional and personal success we are sold is one we will never quite reach; and
  2. The suburban tendency to fetishise melancholy and to fixate on the interior self. This is a form of hypochondria that is leading to depression being overly diagnosed.

The outcome is we have a middle class subject with a Janus-faced psychology that projects a super-fierce, go-getter confidence on the outside while being riddled with insecurities and uncertainties about their life prospects on the inside.

In my view, this kind of psychology may thrive in a social setting such as Rhodes, precisely because its comforts are associated with global suburbanism, where narratives of success on the one hand and stress on the other are mimicked from neurotic American sitcom characters.

It is a culture of constant self-diagnosis where anxiety and stress are seen as disorders that must surface and be continually confessed, some students may very well start believing that every time they feel overwhelmed by life, they need therapy or medication to get through it. In such a culture, the role of friendship as a form of psychosocial support becomes obsolete, because the expectation is that the anxious person “must see someone”. Feelings of sadness and inadequacy require therapy, and this leads to the sense that not feeling good is a situation that requires medical help.

There has been a debate going on in the United States media about the millennials – the generation born from 1980 onwards – and their alleged sense of entitlement towards work, wealth and leisure. I don’t want to get into those debates here, but I don’t think this culture of anxiety can be understood outside of the material successes of 40 years of suburban professional parents who may have not been able grapple with the social effects of affluence.

Part of the anxiety arises from a narcissistic urbanism that has its roots in latter-day suburban, nuclear family culture where children are overindulged and overpraised while never really having a true sense of what they can do by themselves as well as for others – the child is not encouraged to be self-sufficient and to be satisfied with themselves in relation to their peers.

With that in mind, I have been wondering how to provide students with a balanced view of stress and anxiety which shows that their lecturers care about their wellbeing, while also being firm about the fact that they are at university to prepare themselvesto cope with the fact that life is sometimes kak but goes on nonetheless.

I am quite concerned about students I know who have come from townships or lower middle class backgrounds who begin to self-diagnose their stress through these suburban medicalised discourses. As a black lecturer, I find myself in a dilemma because, in my mind, the key to their success at Rhodes is to learn to cope with stress and be mindful of their bigger vision.

I am convinced the anxiety culture on campus disables the social coping mechanisms black students bring with them, and assimilates them into narratives of fetishised suburban anxiety.

In my education activism, I have come across two schools that provide high quality education for township students. Both the founders of these schools name resilience as one of the core values they impart to students.

At this point I need to make the expected disclaimer – I am not saying black people do not suffer from depression and should not seek therapy.

But I cannot leave unexamined the way I suspect medicalised discourses of anxiety are harming our students’ self-image generally, and disabling black students who were once socialised into a political resilience necessary for them to succeed in South Africa.


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