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A young woman in South Africa enjoys a healthy lunch

Prevention Over Intervention: Wellness for University Students

Guest Author: Zakiya Chikte

Worldwide mental health issues are increasing, and the COVID-19 pandemic is predicted to worsen this often-overlooked health concern. South Africa is no exception to this increase — including its higher education institutions. In fact, research shows that common mental disorders have a higher lifetime prevalence among students than the nation’s general population.

Across the student population, mood and anxiety disorders are the most common. Transitioning to the ecosystem of university life requires adaptability and presents social, financial, and academic pressures — among many other changes. Our Dell Young Leaders, who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds, are now part of this ecosystem and just as susceptible to mental health concerns as anyone else.

As we work towards improving their outcomes, it’s paramount that they are not only graduating and entering the world of work, but that they are equipped with skills to mentally and physically cope with pressures they will face in life.

Defining and Prioritizing Wellness for Dell Young Leaders  

As a program, we started the journey of pivoting our wellness offerings in 2018 to focus on prevention over intervention alone. Because of the range in definitions and understanding of wellness, we honed in on defining the concept to tailor our resources to the needs present across our student community. We catered to the realities of student life, focusing on mental health, physical health, and healthy eating. We worked with students to understand their challenges and designed solutions that met student needs, like offering nutritious meal tutorials that are easy to prepare, as well as cost and time effective, and exercise routines appropriate for the limited space of a residence room.

Making Wellness Accessible Through COVID-19  

In the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, as students returned home and dealt with heightened anxiety, we recognised the need to socialise the importance of maintaining wellness. Innovating quickly, we focused our efforts on providing accessible digital resources and building opportunities for community engagement, which was essential for students who felt isolated and cut-off from their campus support networks.

We designed a series of weekly challenges for students to engage in wellness in new and exciting ways. Emphasizing mental health, we included challenges for improving sleep quality, breathing exercises, mindfulness, and yoga. As students start to return to campus, we are continuing to measure engagement and learn from their experiences with this part of the program. We are encouraged as students, like Tersia, find a renewed energy for investing in wellness as part of their university goals.

Dell Young Leader Tersia shared, “Participating in the #DYLWellness program was fun and exhilarating! The variety of challenges released weekly were easy to engage with and uniquely sculpted according to my daily needs. From yoga to healthy meal recipes — all providing me with the motivation and ‘feel good energy’ to lead a productive day.”

Wellness is a support lever for all aspects in our lives. Students who are well have the ability to engage in healthy social relationships, prioritise time, and succeed in their academic and career endeavours. By supporting students through their wellness journey, our program team shows them that their wellness is important and creates opportunities for sustainable lifestyle changes.

Zakiya Chikte is the Dell Young Leaders Program Associate at the University of Cape Town, directly supporting students as they navigate university life.