2023: Let's turn 'social freeze' into 'social rehabilitation'

Friends at a camp fire

In December 2022 I wrote a testimonial for a student who failed 3rd year studies at Stellenbosch. Like his peers, he received his exam results at year-end. He failed several subjects but was given an opportunity to appeal for a ‘second chance’. 

There are mitigating circumstances to support a policy for second chances and these circumstances are collective.

My conversation with this student echoed my concerns about what I have observed among students at Nelson Mandela University. This past year clearly showed that life in the aftermath of Covid and the pandemic restrictions is marked by post-traumatic stress for many individuals and families. Not everyone has ‘just coped and gotten on with life’.

Rather than abandon those who did not make the grade to their dismal sense of failure, let us see if we cannot offer some much-needed portals of hope.

The tremendous importance of offering support was highlighted for me early in the year, thanks to a face-to-face seminar, Mental Health and Wellbeing in the Workplace.

The presenter was the head psychiatrist of one of the city’s state institutions, Prof Stoffel Grobler. The audience comprised mainly HR managers of the local corporates: managers who, for 2 years, had dealt with all the problems of their company’s employees. They were alarmed by the increase in mental breakdowns and spoke about their struggle with finding access to our under-resourced health care system. They were at the end of their tether themselves, trying to cope.

We arrived at the venue with the obligatory masks and checked out how everyone observed queuing and distancing at the welcome coffee bar. The joy of recognizing colleagues and our relief about a ‘real’ seminar were obvious! But … there was something stilted in the spontaneity of our greetings. South African ‘meet & greets’ tend to be expressed very physically, with lots of hugging. This was now not the case. We grouped together hesitantly, standing slightly apart.

Thanks to the speaker’s inviting style, the audience quickly became engaged. The information presented did not sugar-coat the harsh facts of increased post-Covid mental unwellness. The impact of fear-of-the-unknown and the fear-inducing policies that were forced upon us – at school, at work, in hospitals and in our own homes – showed in shocking stats how many fellow humans suffer from anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.

A teacher stood up and asked what she could do to help her school. ’Are there also mental health programmes designed for schools, like what you are planning for companies?’ she asked. ‘In our school,’ she added, ‘several pupils have committed suicide … and two children are traumatized after finding their parents who had killed themselves at their home …’

Guided by the professional calm of our speaker, we tried to grasp the magnitude of the task: restoring and promoting mental well-being. Whenever I am confronted with symptoms of mental vulnerability, the impact of this seminar puts me on high alert. This brings me to the topic of how university students have been coping: they were sent back home in the early days of the pandemic and now trickle back to campus. Some are 3rd years, who completely missed out on the classroom experience! I facilitate research training for Nelson Mandela University post-grads and have a special commitment to these students. If their research projects fail, it can break them and make them drop out – so close to the finish line. At the start of the pandemic, I began presenting my workshops online and this continued even through the 2022 academic year.

It allowed me to notice a distinct change in the learning and participation curve among the students over the past 3 years.

On-line platforms as only point of contact started out as an eager reaching out to facilitate tutoring and learning. However, gradually interest and participation dwindled down, with less and less motivation and the clear impact of ‘zoom fatigue’. Soon it was evident that on-line was a poor substitute for in-person contact. The impact in all its complexities gradually began to reveal itself – and continues doing so.

Students became increasingly non-responsive and utterly passive – their video turned off, no assignments sent in anymore and prompting for participation eliciting an occasional question. The on-line modality became a dissatisfactory one-way Powerpoint presentation.

Among colleagues we shared our concerns. When students returned to campus, the mood in the classroom also was hesitant and passive. Interactive lecturers despair that they cannot elicit a ‘normal’ response.

I refer to this phenomenon as a kind of ‘social freeze’ – a condition of disablement of ‘normal’ social interaction, body language and communication. The ‘normal dynamic’ is well-known to all who work with young people!  The impact of the Covid policies of social isolation has been particularly damaging for children, adolescents and young adults. Anxiety, depression and worse are among the traumatic after-effects they are dealing with. It has become a main given in requests for life coaching.

Unpacking this context with the Stellenbosch student, it enabled him to identify why he was not feeling ‘his usual self’, being back in the classroom. He put into his own words that he lost his normal social ease and confidence.

He also described his loss of interest in his studies ‘because for 2 years it was all just on-line theory’ – not the practicals and case studies that he had been looking forward to. As with scores of learners and students, the on-line mode of learning did not agree with him. He mentioned how he only felt a spark of interest in his studies again during a recent technical demonstration in class. Then he realized that this is what he had hoped for in engineering studies.

Most poignant in our conversation was that he could find external context to what he perceived as his personal failure – that he had not turned into an asocial, anxious individual, with ‘something wrong with him’. He queried several times: ‘So I am not a failure?’ NO! And neither is he alone in being affected by a global-scale disaster!

For most people, understanding the external cause of their alienation, and the fact that it affects so many others, brings an immense sense of relief. It is a turning point toward mental health and wellness, to break the cycle of self-blame, shame, self-doubt, feeling guilty for failing and disappointing oneself and one’s family. Breaking the negative cycle gives hope that one’s next positive steps can also follow: rediscovering social skills and companionship. Asking for and giving support.

When it comes to physical health, the necessity of bodily rehabilitation – say after an injury or surgery – is understood as a process and it is accepted that it takes time. Less understood is that we need to allow for processes of mental and social rehabilitation to recover from the damage caused by the pandemic’s abnormal scenario. As to these hidden effects on the human psyche, we are only just seeing the tip of the hippo’s ears. Emotional trauma is not wiped out just like that.

For the current student generation, their return to campus does not guarantee that those who failed will all bounce back academically – but their campus environment offers them a space for social healing and fostering confidence among their peers. What better place to defrost the social freeze and revive the camaraderie that forms such a unique ingredient of varsity years.

Author Alex Beard in his book Natural Born Learners – Inside the Global Learning Revolution (2018) pleads for a radical shift in education systems, with ‘learning to cooperate’ prevailing over ‘competition’ and with focus given to well-being and social and emotional development. This is an argument I wholeheartedly endorse.

Our human ability to learn and thus to adapt and change – not only during our schooling years but throughout our life – is the soul of our being. We are what we learn. Rehabilitating our social sphere of humanness is a promising process of collective healing and learning that will help many to overcome what they suffer in silence and self-blame.

Holistic rehabilitation implies caring for our health in all its aspects – and the social aspect does not have to be complicated or esoteric. We can all become better empathic, active listeners, ready to offer: ‘How can I help?’ Be the ones who sincerely say ‘thank you’ for everything we owe to others. Was it Madiba who said: ‘It is a precious virtue to make others happy and forget their worries.’

Port Elizabeth, 31 December 2022