The exam period is, by far, the most difficult academic period any student will ever go through. It is a period of high stress and little sleep, and many go through it only to come out of it not feeling the same person. It is a period that is the same for every student – in first year and at senior level – when the exam period arrives, all students go through high levels of doubt and frustration.

I am at the University of the Free State. We’ve already seen cases where students pass out during exams because of a lack of sleep. We’re also seeing students lining up at the campus health care facility because of the high levels of stress they’re going through, and many are already speaking about giving up.

Unfortunately, these cases, as serious as they may be, are not the worst we’ve heard during exam periods. There are also instances when students, in a desperate act to find a solution to the stress they’re going through, end up taking their own lives. They do so because they see no other way out, and this reality is one we cannot continue to ignore.

Luckily, there are groups of students and academics who have seen this problem and are doing something to help.

To help each other get through this period, many students have come together to create support groups. Some of these groups are formal – like a university society that deals with mental health – and others are informal and comprise of friends doing things to help each other through the period. What’s important for the students and academics who create these groups is to have support structures for anyone who needs them and it seems to be working.

The causes of the stress are not only academic, though – they also include pressure from families. Because most of the students on campus are first generation students, many of them don’t turn to their families whenever they’re going through stressful periods on campus. They do this because they don’t believe that their families would be able to understand what they are going through, and to some extent, they are right.

The university environment is one such that it would only take people who have gone through it to understand and be able give advice to someone on how they can get through it too. So, trapped and alone, many students end up taking drastic decisions when going through periods of stress, and these support groups that students and academics create are there to help where family cannot.

A lot of work has been done by mental health activists on campus to help students better take care of their mental health, but a whole lot more needs to be done. There’s still a long way to go if we’re serious about making sure students don’t suffer under the pressure of university alone, and the work that needs to be done needs to be more structural than it currently is.

Currently, awareness campaigns that happen on campus take the form of events and there aren’t enough structures on campus, besides the on campus psychology clinic, that are set aside to assist students during such times.

There are thousands of students on campus, and it would be wrong of us to assume that one office would be able to assist all students when they need it. We need more structures set up and we also need them to be made more easily accessible. These structures need to also put the welfare of the students above their ability to pay, which will assist many students who are unable to pay for their services when they need to access them.

Currently, the only thing we can do is advocate and hope that the message reaches as many students as possible. We can hope that those who receive the message will be able to be assisted when they need the assistance, and that they will not suffer in silence. The mental health of students is something that universities need to put as one of their priorities because it doesn’t help getting access in university only for you to suffer when you get there.


Tell us: what can be done to help school and university students deal with the stress of exams?