“Fight for yourself.” The student bringing mental illness out of the shadows

 
 
 

Stigma thrives in silence. Though mental illness affects everyone, conversations about it remain in the shadows. That’s why Tshepang Mahlatsi is telling his story. After confrontations with the police during the #FeesMustFall protests, the student was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. “I tried at some point taking my life,” Mahlatsi says. “I thought I failed as an individual.” In the process of recovery, he realised he wasn’t the only one struggling at university. By sharing his experience, Mahlatsi is bringing mental health issues to light.

Mahlatsi founded Next Chapter, an organisation at the University of the Free State, to destigmatise the dialogue on mental health. “People are afraid to speak out because they don’t want to be labelled as weak,” Mahlatsi says. Across South Africa, students are faced with an inordinate amount of strain. There’s the pressure to succeed, the stress of a new environment, and for some, the burden of being a first-generation university student. Learners may even struggle to identify what they are feeling. “In my culture, we don’t have the right ways to explain what depression is,” Mahlatsi says. “How do we start a conversation on something we don’t know?” His initiative hosts peer group sessions on a range of issues, from managing finances to coming out. By creating a space of knowledge and understanding, Mahlatsi is breaking through misconceptions and allowing people to speak openly.

Change doesn’t begin with an individual, but a community. As he shares his story, Mahlatsi shows that it’s possible to heal. More people are able to get help when we shine a light in the darkness. Thanks to Mahlatsi’s initiative, students in particular have a better chance to care for their mental health. “Fight for yourself,” Mahlatsi says. “Fight for your family. Fight for your success. What will define you is your resilience.”