Med students driven to drink by Fees Must Fall protests — study

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Fees Must Fall protests drove medical students to drink. Literally. The Times reports that this is according to a study at the University of the Free State (UFS). A third of trainee doctors started drinking more as protests reached their height in 2016, the study found, and three-quarters said their academic performance suffered. One in eight medical students were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after a test they were writing was physically disrupted by protesters.

There was a tendency towards poorer performance and more failures the next year,” said researchers. But, the report says, the outcome wasn’t all negative. “This study may assist medical faculties to prepare students for additional stress and equip them to cope with it,” they said.

Hanneke Brits, a professor in the UFS medical school who led second-year students’ study of the effect Fees Must Fall had on third-years, said that as well as drinking more, 40% of the 120 students who responded to questionnaires reported disrupted sleep.
“Alcohol consumption and changes in sleeping patterns can have negative effects on academic performance, through the direct effect on memory, decreased motivation and less time to spend on studies,” said Brits.

Overall, the students felt negative about the protests, with 79.9% dreading a recurrence the following year. Brits said they discovered that 12.7% of medical students had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which “warranted the subsequent appointment of a clinical psychologist and a social worker to assist medical students in coping”.

Studies in 1998 and 2014 had found stress levels as high as 78% among medical students, she said, and nearly half of fourth-year medical students at UFS in 2018 reported burnout.

The report says Brits’s study is just the latest evidence that Fees Must Fall took a heavy psychological toll on students and staff at universities. Wits University activist Simamkele Dlakuvu is quoted as saying in 2016: “Last month, I asked other Fallists around the country if they were also noticing a pattern on their campuses of activists turning to alcohol and drugs to cope.

“A suspended Fallist at the University of Cape Town responded: ‘Yes, definitely! Too much’ … Which, instead of helping people cope with the depression, worsens it.”

The report says in August 2018, it was reported that some student activists were still suffering from depression, almost two years after protests ended. Tshepang Mahlatsi, 22, from UFS, said he had been diagnosed with PTSD. “I witnessed security officials kicking the doors down, storming into our rooms to arrest students. Many called me to help but I was helpless,” he said.

The report says after the suicide a year ago of University of Cape Town dean of health sciences Bongani Mayosi, vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng said he was one of many academics badly affected by Fees Must Fall protests. “During the protests he experienced pressure from staff and at some stages from students, black students,” she said.

“We have Dr Mayosi who has committed suicide but we have some who are still in their jobs and they are hurting. We have some who’ve experienced heart attacks, they have survived and are still here with us, but things are tough.”

Background. Medical students are under immense academic stress. Campus unrest can contribute to stress and influence academic performance, social behaviour, emotional stability and financial expenses. Objectives. To investigate the effects of #FeesMustFall2016 (#FMF2016) on the 2016 3rd-year (semester 6) clinical medical students at the University of the Free State (UFS), Bloemfontein, South Africa.
Methods. In phase 1 of the project, anonymous questionnaires were completed by the clinical students who experienced physical test disruption during #FMF2016. Opinions regarding academic performance, financial expenses, behaviour changes and stress levels were gathered. The students also completed a formal post-traumatic stress screening assessment. In phase 2 of the project, the academic performance of these students was compared with that of students not affected by #FMF2016.
Results. Of the target population of 138 students, 87.0% completed the questionnaires. Three-quarters of the respondents reported a negative effect on academic performance, and most did not believe that the delivering of lectures on Blackboard was a good way of training. Alcohol consumption increased in 31.9% of the students. Criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were met in 12.7% of students. Compared with previous and later cohorts of students there were no clear differences regarding marks, but there was a tendency towards poorer performance and more failures the next year.
Conclusions. Semester 6 medical students at UFS reported that the #FMF2016 protests had a negative effect on academic, social, financial and stress aspects. PTSD was present in 12.7% of students compared with 7.8% in similar populations.

H Brits; G Joubert; L Lomberg P Djan; G Makoro; M Mokoena; P Malate; D Tengu

The Times report
SA Medical Journal abstract

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