“I have come to believe that caring for myself is not self-indulgence. Caring for myself is an act of survival.”

– Audre Lourde

Over the last few days and even weeks there has been a great deal of discussion about the economic, political and educational costs of #FeesMustFall. While these discussions have most certainly been valid, very little has been written about the psychological costs of the protests/riots. What many might not know is that almost inevitably, there is a huge spike in stress related mental and physical disorders in the days, weeks and months after these protests. The last few weeks will inevitably lead to hundreds of cases of mild to more severe cases of post-traumatic stress disorder. The symptoms are not pleasant; panic attacks, vomiting, flashbacks, and bodily pain are not uncommon.

Agency and Self-Care

One of the key features of good mental health is the capacity for agency and self care. Agency, in simple terms, is the ability to make choices about one’s life without undue influences and coercion. Self-care is a feature of this; it is taking actions to look after one’s physical and mental health. This could be as simple as washing hands before meals, to ditching an abusive partner. When self-care and agency are not possible, the individual becomes very vulnerable to a host of mental disorders, depending on the circumstances.

The problem with #FeesMustFall is that the exercise of agency and self-care of students has been put under direct threat, whether protester, rioter, or bystander. If we draw on the protests and riots of the last couple of weeks, it is possible to see exactly how this may occur.

At Stellenbosch, a campaign was exercised by a small group of students with the aim of pushing the #FeesMustFall agenda. They occupied the main library over a number of days. Eventually, they were thrown out by security, whereupon they went on a rampage, disrupting tests and, finally, occupied a lecture theatre.

It was pretty clear from the beginning that it was going to end badly.

Firstly, they made the fundamental error of targeting fellow students. Initially, students took the occupation in good spirits, but as the disruption grew, regardless of race or economic status, they quickly turned against the protesters. The demands made by the protesters changed almost hourly, making them look very disorganised and confused – which they were. It was apparent that their leadership had no real long term plan of action. Both protesters and the students targeted became increasingly stressed. At one stage the press reported that they had threatened to burn the library. It became apparent that the only option was to forcibly remove them from the library, which management did. From a psychological perspective, the protesters were not prepared for this. One student even had a seizure, most likely caused by the extended period of stress she experienced during the occupation. Again, this was a failure of the student leadership that they hadn’t considered the mental states of the protesters; they were simply used as pawns.

At the time of writing this article, these protesters have since been served with suspensions and interdicts.

Imagine for a moment what this must be like. Some of them were about to enter their final year. Potentially, this will go out the window. From a social perspective there will also be long term consequences. Imagine for a moment you are one of these students. Everyone knows exactly who you are. And students are angry, really angry. Imagine walking into a lecture and sitting down, knowing the vast majority are upset with you; they blame you for their disrupted education. Imagine a single mom, battling her way through her course, all of a sudden to have this jeopardised by some protester. You’ll be able to cut the tension with a knife. It will be like this every day; people, buildings – even sounds will remind you of this. In the long run the student in question will undoubtedly start to develop various stress related symptoms: weight gain/loss, sleeplessness, anxiousness, dreariness, fear, and loss of concentration.

And here is the thing: it will be for nothing. No matter how much you may believe in free education, you will know that your protest didn’t achieve a thing. The sheer disorganisation of the protests means that your message will be lost and things will go on as before. A similar issue can be seen at the larger protests at Wits. Leaders initially had some semblance of control, but as they had no real plans or strategy, matters quickly degenerated into violence. In some cases we’ve had students turning on other students, using violence to quell dissent. In the end, the message was lost.  The violence simply gave police permission to storm the students. Getting caught in a riot is no laughing matter. But again, it is pointless. Student leadership is incapable and have simply allowed students’ well-being to be harmed for nothing.

A Final Message to Protesters

If you are a student involved in #FeesMustFall, you might want to pause and consider your own well-being. The protest leaders quite plainly have no clue as to what they are doing, which is allowing violent rioters to take over the agenda. If identified by management/police, you run the real risk of getting suspended or receiving a criminal record. This isn’t self-care. In the long run, you will suffer from the ineptitude of leadership. Are you really being benefited by #FeesMustFall? Maybe it is time do what protest leadership isn’t doing: consider your self-care. You owe this not only to your current self, but also to your future self. If you aren’t benefiting through poor leadership, neither does your community or the rest of society. #FeesMustFall is not self-care.

Anthony Stuurman (a pen-name) is an educator in the Eastern Cape with an interest in neuroscience, ethnobotany and a passion for free speech.