Examination Season’s Mental-health Woes

For many students, the end of a semester is a dark period. As the clock ticks towards exams, many struggle with mental health. How can students cope?

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By Olona Sicwebu and Katleho Sathekge
Feature image by Katleho Sathekge.

Mental and physical health can and does affect one’s day-to-day life. For students, it includes academic responsibilities. Mental health has to do with the psychological, emotional, and social well-being of an individual whereas physical health encompasses physical aspects of well-being like physical activity and diet.

Several interviews with students at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) revealed that many students do not do enough to maintain their physical and mental health throughout the semester. 

The Open Journal learnt, for example, that many continue with such habits as unhealthy eating, procrastination, and a lack of physical activity. Some of those interviewed admitted to having unhealthy sleeping patterns due to studying late at night. 

Some, however, try to engage less in activities that may affect their studies such as excessive social media use and alcohol drinking, as well as club-hopping and socialising with friends.

Psychologist Siyabonga Ntshangase being interviewed in the PsyCaD office at Impala Court, University of Johannesburg Bunting Road Campus. By Katleho Sathekge.

Siyabonga Ntshangase, a counselling psychologist at UJ’s Centre for Psychological Services and Career Development (PsyCad), shared several tips for students to help with the mental health aspect of dealing with exam stress.

  1. It is important to recognise the signs and symptoms of exam stress in oneself. Know when the stress is no longer normal, when it is excessive. Be aware of stress symptoms such as worry, shaking of hands, palm sweating and nausea.
  2. Do something about your stress. This can be through working on your study management and time management skills in addition to consulting other students or lecturers and/or using practice tests to prepare.
  3. Focus on each upcoming exam, not the past exam. When you finish any assessment, try your best not to think about it.
  4. Practice self-care. Eat, sleep, work, rest and play. When you take care of yourself you are more likely to improve the chances of doing well at school.

Other ways of coping

Having the right mindset during the examination period is important, but it cannot be the only way. There are other practical ways every student should try to better prepare for any assessment. 

Ntshangase also pointed out activities students should avoid during exam season or in the weeks approaching it. These include eliminating negative thoughts about assessments. Exams are not a bad thing; they are an important element of the learning process. 

Students from the University of Johannesburg Auckland Park Kingsway Campus having lunch at the benches outside the student centre. By Olona Sicwebu.

It is also advisable to avoid distractions. This is a time for every student to maintain focus. For some, it looks like reducing time from friends or reducing time on social media. For other people, however, it may be thinking about difficult home situations. This also can include working on how you study, making sure you study in a quiet and uncluttered area and paying attention to how you manage time.

Do not cross-night if you have not tried it before. Although there are people who study better during the night, it is important to know yourself in order to plan your time better. And avoid study marathons. This means do not study for hours on end. Take breaks at least every hour to allow your mind to work at its peak attention span.

Mental health and the university’s role

Many students have also said that they feel like institutions of higher learning do not give enough attention to helping students be aware of ways in which they can get help where mental health is concerned.

“There are no programs which allow us to express ourselves such as gathering and talking about our suffering, which would really help us. If you do not have someone to talk to, you are mostly unlikely to get over what is challenging you. They only provide us with Psycad; and one must go to Psycad with a valid reason … You must go there already [with a diagnosis of] yourself,” said one UJ student who chose not to be identified.

Many students said that even though mental-health services are provided, there is not enough work done to emphasise the importance of mental and physical well-being to students, and information regarding campus psychological services are not conveyed in a way that students would actively take an interest in – which would help them get the assistance necessary for them.

In jest, Ntshangase said: “I wish people can get marks for coming to Psycad … I think the University having these services, like ours available, is a big step, right?”

Self-care is very important. You cannot study when you are hungry, so eat well in order to study. Joining a gym can also improve one’s physical and mental well-being. Doing activities outside of school related activities can help too.

What is the use of getting a qualification if you would not be there to accept it during graduation? Your life is important. Achievements should not be sought after at the risk of your life and of your sanity. When you’re sick, take care of yourself and do not push yourself too hard. If you feel stressed, tell a friend or consider therapy.

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