How Student Mental Health Impacts Academic Performance


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While a student’s academic journey can be both enriching and transformative, the pursuit of education often comes with immense pressure and stress. This is why it is extremely crucial to recognize that a student's mental well-being contributes to shaping their overall success.


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Mental health plays an important role when it comes to how well students perform academically, with many students feeling overwhelmed by not only their studies but coping with their everyday lives as well.

Studies suggest that university students are particularly at high risk of depression and anxiety. One South African study estimated that 24.2% of university students suffer from mild depression, and 12.4% have moderate to severe depression. Globally, an average of about 21% of university students have a major depressive disorder.

This is concerning because students with depression face very specific challenges. Some of these challenges may include worse academic outcomes, low productivity, being more likely to struggle with alcohol abuse in adulthood, and high rates of suicide.

The reality is that most of the time, students have a lot on their plate. With responsibilities and tasks that could quite often pile up while also dealing with the ins and outs of life, one’s mental health can easily get neglected.

Common Mental Health issues students face

Careers Portal spoke with Counselling Psychologist and Head of Department Student Counselling at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), Leanie Brits, to gain some insight on student mental health challenges.

Brits says there are several types of mental health challenges students face, but depression and anxiety are the most prevalent.

We know from literature that nationally, our students in South Africa struggle mostly with depression, anxiety, and substance-related challenges.

She explains, "But then you will also see students dealing with other phyco-social issues like relationship problems, adjustment challenges, and problems with resources related to finances, food, and student accommodation."

"Different stages in life bring different challenges. If you look at young people between the ages of 18 and 24 years, this is typically the age group that experiences more mental health challenges, adds Brits.

So, for young adults and adolescents, it is typically challenges related to adjustment and peer pressure; it is then finding a career that is suitable to them as well as establishing romantic relationships.

Brits continues,“Then, when we start looking at students who might have graduated already and are doing a second qualification, you might be looking at balancing work and studies and financial challenges as well.”

Observing changes in student behaviour

Identifying mental health struggles in students requires careful observation and sensitivity. While each individual may exhibit different signs, there are common observable indicators that may suggest a student is facing mental health challenges.

Depression and anxiety can also disrupt cognitive functions such as memory, attention, and problem-solving skills. Students may struggle to focus on tasks, retain information, or engage in critical thinking, leading to difficulties in understanding and processing complex academic material.

Brits says that one can typically look out for behaviours where a person withdraws and isolates themselves, especially if it’s different from what they did before.

For example, previously a student would have attended classes regularly, or they would have engaged, interacted during lessons, and submitted assignments on time, but now suddenly that person is struggling to meet some, if not all, of these obligations.

Engaging in high-risk behaviour—suddenly you notice a student is drinking more or partying more. These are all signs one can pick up on. The student is suddenly sleeping more and not taking care of themselves or their hygiene.

Brits notes that although there are several observable signs, there are also various issues and challenges that students may display that are not visible.

Many students may experience internal struggles that don't manifest in observable behaviours. However, these hidden challenges can be just as impactful and distressing as outwardly visible signs.

For example, high levels of stress, often associated with academic pressures, combined with existing mental health challenges, can lead to burnout. Burnout can result in physical and emotional exhaustion, reduced motivation, and a diminished ability to concentrate on academic tasks.

What can institutions do to help?

Educational institutions have a responsibility to provide support for students who have mental health issues.

Recognizing the unique challenges that college students face, universities can play a critical role in promoting mental well-being, reducing stigma, and ensuring that students with mental health concerns can succeed academically and personally.

Brits says it is important for any institution to understand the importance of mental wellness. 

Making sure that the service is accessible, making sure that there is an on-campus service, perhaps an online service, an after-hours service.

Furthermore, she stresses that there shouldn’t be a separation between wellness and mental health services and the curriculum or academic studies.

"There should be an integration between them." So, one really wants to see that the relevant topics are also in the curriculum, meaning that in classrooms and as part of teaching, some of these topics are addressed," explains Brits.

Additionally, continually informing and reminding students about resources that are available is important as students may forget where to find help when they are in crisis.

“There needs to be conversations held inside the classroom.” This could be done by creating opportunities for students to talk about it and engage on topics, she adds. 

The one thing I’ve learned at CPUT is that students do like to talk about these issues and want to share their thoughts and opinions. Creating those platforms is key. Whether it's through sport, poetry, or in class discussion groups, it is really valuable to promote mental health.

Student counselling facilities at universities

Brits says the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) has a number of health and wellness services. This includes the campus health clinic and the student counselling department, which are available to students on all four of the main campuses.

She adds, "Students are able to make use of these services free of charge."

In addition, there are also various external stakeholders that we partner with to bring support services to students. This includes after-hours helpline numbers that are available to students if there is an emergency or crisis. 

One can see from the uptake of the services that it is effective. It is well marketed and promoted to students so that they can make use of the services.

She adds, "It is quite important that students take ownership and initiative to speak out if they are having problems or need service."

Here are ways parents or educators can offer support:

  1. Make support practical; be straight-forward or direct.
  2. Be present and show interest
  3. Listen with an open mind
  4. Create a positive environment
  5. Reduce stressors - encourage balance
  6. Celebrate progress

Brits concludes, “Essentially, it does take a village to provide assistance and support, and I think that’s why it's important for institutions to have policies in place that guide the provision of services for students."

If you or anyone you know is suffering from mental health issues, you can contact:

  • Higher Health helpline: 0800 36 36 36/ SMS 43336
  • LifeLine: 011 728 1347/0861 322 322
  • South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG): 0800 567 567/SMS 31393
  • SADAG Substance Abuse Helpline: 0800 121314 
  • Akeso Psychiatric Response Unit: 0861 435787
  • Narcotics Anonymous: 083 900 6962

Click Here To See List of Mental Health Resources Offered At SA Universities 

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Mental health plays an important role when it comes to how well students perform academically with many students feeling overwhelmed by not only their studies, but coping with their everyday lives as well. Here are the mental health resources available to you as a South African student.






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