The enormous pressure to succeed at university is driving several students on the brink of exhaustion but the failure to realise dreams is having a devastating effects as in the case of Natasha Byenjeru, a young law student who took her life on June 6 following a mental breakdown over an exam retake.
ERNEST JJINGO spoke to key people about the mental health issue. When Natasha Byenjeru joined Makerere University to study in 2015, she was fresh from high school and dreamt of completing the course within the four-year duration.
However, almost seven years down the road, she was still held up from graduating by a retake in the course unit called Business Associations II.
On June 1, she made her third and last attempt at passing the paper but shortly after coming out, a crestfallen Byenjeru intimated to friends that the exam was harder than expected. Under the university rules, a student is disqualified from a course once he/she fails a course unit for a third time.
“She had performed poorly in coursework after missing out on marks for class presentations via Zoom...so, she knew it was always going to be an uphill task in the final exam,” said a friend who preferred anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Byenjeru feared for the worst and seeing how most of the colleagues she started the course with were already advocates of the High court, she fell into a deep depression.
“She only said she had nothing to tell the parents if she fails again because that would be the end of her attempt to become a lawyer,” said another friend who is now an advocate.
Sadly, on June 6, Byenjeru ended her life through suicide. She wanted to end the mental anguish caused by the fear of shame to the parents. Several people close to her who preferred anonymity say the signs were obvious that she was depressed. Her death has since raised the issue of mental health at the Makerere University School of Law, with various stakeholders suggesting an overhaul to the studying at the school.
Efforts to reach out to Dr Christopher Mbaziira and Dr Ronald Naluwayiro, the principal and deputy principal of the School of Law respectively, were futile as they didn’t pick their calls. Grace Waiswa Nsaawa, the president of Makerere Law Society (MLS), told The Observer that Byenjeru’s death is a wake-up call to MLS and that they are going to take the issue of mental health seriously among students and the administration.
“Recently, there was a psychologist who was assigned to the school of law and actually she came and spoke to first year students during orientation a few weeks ago. She emphasized that she is always going to be available at law school so that students can interact with her whenever they are having issues of mental health,” he said.
Nsaawa recognizes that very many students at the school of law are suffering from depression and anxiety disorders which he attributes to the pressure that comes with the heavy studying and that it sometimes leads to drug abuse, addictions and alcoholism, which may lead to circumstances such as suicide.
“I have been able to get in touch with some of the close friends of Byenjeru and they think and at- tribute her demise to drug addiction as a result of depression but it cannot yet be confirmed; it just alleged but it is one of the things that have been mentioned by her close friends,” Nsaawa said.
RELAXATION OF RULES
In that regard, Nsaawa says his executive has proposed to have supplementary exams for final year students who fail a course unit like it is done at the Law Development Centre (LDC) instead of having them wait for another year.
“Had Byenjeru got the chance to do a supplementary exam, she may not have gone through the three years of trauma and agony waiting to do just one paper every year.
However, we know this is not a prerogative of the school of law or MLS leadership but for the university’s senate. So, unless the university senate passes that particular order, we may never be able to get supplementary exams. Very many leaders have written letters to the school of law requesting for the reinstatement of supplementary exams but the school of law cannot veto that,” he said.
Ferdinand Tumuhaise, popularly known in law student circles as Son of Loyola, was the best law student at Makerere in 2019. He says that throughout his four years at Law School, he never saw any counsellor at the School of Law.
“There is only one centre at the university [for seeking counsel- ling] but it seems students do not use it effectively. Those at the centre keep waiting for students to go to them yet students need to be checked on constantly. I haven’t found in Ugandan universities anything related to mental health being taken of,” Tumuhaise said.
He added that students are on their own and always stressed with personal issues like finances and too much anxiety but the only thing lecturers care about is pumping them with course works because the rhetoric is that if you do not do it you are going to fail.
“I noticed, for example, that when a student lost a parent, most lecturers did not even care to provide the student with a personal touch. But when I lost my brother 14 days before I did my masters in Laws exams at Harvard Law School, I was in Uganda but like three people from Harvard registrar’s office were contacting me every day to make sure that
I was fine and in place to sit for the coming exams. But in Uganda, students are left on their own,” he said.
He added that Ugandan institutions are doing little about the mental health well-being of their students and this is costing the country a lot and when, for example, a student gets a problem with their exam results, they keep on being tossed from one office to another and in the end students end up repeating exams they never even failed.
Tumuhaise notes that maybe having a liaison officer or a particular office where students can go to, be welcomed with open arms and seek help in case they are facing any personal or study related issues.
“Students reach the examination office and they are abused and chased away. At least let us have an office specifically dedicated to the welfare of the students and put in place personnel who have the qualifications to handle students in terms of their mental health issues.”
A survey by The Observer in 2018 revealed that each year, an average of 10 students at Makerere University commit suicide as a result of mental breakdown related to studies.
According Haruna Nyanzi Bujirita, a specialist mental health consultant and director of Metro Health International, there is
a surge in anxiety and stress sweeping across many university campuses.
“This problem is not unique to Uganda or Makerere and this is usually as a result of pressure to achieve high grades academically alongside balancing other social aspects such as relationships, finances, unrealistic social media influences, among others.” He says.
“This in some cases can result in low mood and related hopelessness and can result in suicide behaviour or ideation. Suicide is complex. There’s no one single cause. It can be associated with untreated mood disorders such as clinical depression, schizophrenia and in some cases substance misuse. History of suicide within the family can also be a risk factor, and so are difficult life events considered as traumatic.”
Bujirita says there remain several challenges to get students to admit they need help.
“There is still stigma associated with mental health difficulties and given the fact there is a scarcity of mental health experts and services in Uganda, many people opt to deal with mental health issues alone.”
However, Bujirita says the solution lie creating awareness drives to educate young people about mental illness and warning signs.
“It can also help with address associated stigma. Early interventions are key to better management of mental health disorder. Training lay people to deliver short-term psychological interventions to address shortage of skilled manpower. Unlike common perceptions, asking if someone has thoughts of harming or killing themselves doesn’t increase risk, it only helps in identifying those in need of urgent attention.”