May is World Mental Health Awareness month. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines Mental Health as “well-being in which the individual realizes his or her abilities, can cope up with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and can make a positive contribution to his or her community”. Most students are in later adolescent and early adulthood stage at the same time. This is usually termed as “the adolescent-adult” period which is a very complex phase of life as it is a period of “identity creation”.

When it comes to mental health concerns, most university students are in the process of emotional, social and psychological development. A perfect secondary school student who been normally concentrating on studies is slowly introduced to several new challenges which may naturally change their behavior and life they are accustomed to. Most fresh “campusers” are exposed to high degree of freedom for the first time. While this is exciting, they may not be mentally equipped to handle and ultimately manage it. They start realizing that there is no “teacher” to chase them to go for lectures, no parent to force them to do chores and no more strict rules on their dress code. This is when they start missing lectures, attending all football matches/parties around, indulging in sex, night clubs, going on casual dates and spending too much time on social media. This lifestyle eventually throws negative effects back on them and this pressure may result in them having to deal with consequential effects such as sexual abuse, anxiety, depression or even suicide (in worst case scenarios), among others.

In Uganda, many students who join universities have gone through a range of difficulties which include, poverty, poor parenting, lack of social support, sexual abuse among others. When the already triggered mental health is faced with pressure from studies, it is not surprising that many university students exhibit high levels of psychological distress.

Research and studies.

According to the research by Uganda African centre for suicide in partnership with universities in Uganda, 20% of the 540 students suffered from either moderate or severe depression or 13.89% of these had suicidal thoughts. In this research, factors associated with depression were,

  • Having relationship issues: problems in relationships are one of the leading reasons why students seek counselling and guidance from university counselors. The romantic relationships have been known to have more severe impact on a person’s mental health than other interpersonal relationships like roommates or course mate relationships.
  • Having a history of sexual abuse: students who have a history of sexual abuse proved that they suffer from self-hate and feelings of unworthiness, anxiety of the same experience happening to them again and depression.
  • Low self-esteem: self- esteem is an overall opinion of oneself. When one has a healthy self-esteem, they feel good about themselves whereas when one has low self-esteem, they put little value on their opinions and constantly worry that they are not good enough. Low self-esteem leaves the students doubting their ability to succeed making them hesitant to take appropriate academic growth risks. Although some students join university with low self-esteem, some of them tend to lose their confidence as they encounter people with “better lifestyles”.

Other causes of mental challenges in university students include;

  • Drug abuse and alcohol addiction: this usually results from peer pressure or other stresses that students are trying to suppress. Male students are affected by drug abuse and alcohol addiction more than female students in universities in Uganda.
  • Loneliness: the drastic life transition is something that can sometime for one to adjust to. In many cases, creating new friendships is not easy and in the short run can cause feelings of loneliness among the students. These feelings can later cause depression and may have long lasting effects.
  • The fit-in game: The fit-in game normally starts at an earlier stage in life but it’s more intense at the university. Students are somehow limitless when it comes to showing off; they can put on a range of clothes, and they are exposed to a lot of things to buy unlike in lower stages where one had to put on a uniform and only had a few options when it came to buying stuff. Therefore, one may go through wrong means to acquire the lifestyle to fit in. failure may lead to depression, frustration, anger physically disability or illness: Students who are suffering from a chronic physical illness or disability experience psychological stress especially if the illness interferes with their academics or interpersonal relationships.

What can be done to improve students’ mental health?

  • Create awareness and sensitization on mental health: mental health awareness needs to be embraced by all universities so that their communities can understand that it is very necessary to have a healthy mind. When this is achieved, students will feel free to speak up whenever they are faced with challenges.
  • Provide easily accessible psychosocial support to students and educators: as the saying goes “No visible symptoms, no runny nose, just a head full of darkness”, depression, stress, anxiety, and most of other mental challenges are usually invisible to the outside world. This means that in most cases it will be the individual to seek for help without being noticed by anyone else. So, it’s imperative to provide for students the services which are easily accessible to them.
  • Encourage peer to peer counseling: Encourage students to form student driven associations where they can share their thoughts and challenges freely with each other.
  • Conduct employability and skills training clinics: to provide students with soft skills that are required in the job market. This coupled with sharing opportunities and resources that are available such as volunteering, internships, graduate trainee programs can help provide reassurance to students that they can easily work after university.
  • Educators also need the messege: educators too need to be in a proper mental state of health in order not to endanger their students’ mental health. Resources available to students can also be customized and made available to the educators.


Universities need to come together with various mental health organizations and other stakeholders like government to create conducive, free and stigma free solutions to improve mental health of the students; this will ultimately reduce the currently increasing suicide and sexual abuse cases among university students.

“Together we can help the students live productive happy lives by improving their mental health.”

Written by; Martin Bakundana, ED @ LEM & Carol Naamara, Advocate & Chief Editor @ LEM