A letter to SU students: #Build Back Better

His Highness the Dalai Lama

Dear students, with the upcoming assessment period which will be a first for all of us, this note just to say #StayStrong.

But besides that, my message to you is to use this first ever virtual assessment as an opportunity – indeed, the first bricks in your fantastic new project called #BuildBackBetter.

There’s a saying that a good crisis should not be wasted. And that in every crisis lies great opportunity.

Well, I don’t think there has ever been a “better” crisis in all of our lifetimes. This means there should also be great opportunities.

We need to identify them, and our hopes are on your generation. Not to put more pressure on you, or have more expectations – I know it is already difficult to study under these circumstances.

But we need a better tomorrow, and we need to “build back better”. And your generation will come up with novel ideas to ensure our beloved country lives up to all of her promise and all of her potential.

You will all remember how all of us had to evacuate campus mid-March.

I think we will always remember that Monday, March 16, just one day after the “Ides of March”, March 15 … and I still hear that threat reverberate in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “Beware the Ides of March.”

Just look what our very own “Ides of March” has brought us in the form of this terrifying “Black Swan” that clapped its wings and brought all of our planet to an abrupt standstill.

I cannot try to imagine what 2020’s “Ides of March” did to your plans for a year that started out with so much promise.

Instead of a year of learning and discovering so many new opportunities on our beautiful campus, you are now cut off from all that was, and have to live in a “virtual” world of virtual classrooms and virtual campus contacts.

But: turn the negative into a positive. We know this is an extremely anxious time, and I can only ask you to please take care. Recognise stress and anxiety and empower yourself with knowledge.

For instance, google “breathing techniques for stress or anxiety”. You will find many helpful methods to just regulate your breathing, because everything starts with getting oxygen into our bodies – also to our most important organ, our brain.

Also, make sure you stick to a routine. That will help to “train the brain” that it is now time to engage with your study material.

And, of course, make sure you eat as healthy as possible to ensure you get all the nutrients your body needs. And that you get enough fresh air and exercise.

Also do that which will become part of our future lives: protect yourself by observing all the sanitising rituals.

And please make sure you also get some down-time. If you can sit in a virtual classroom, you can also hang out virtually with friends, whether study buddies in the same programme you are enrolled in, or res or flat mates you last saw before the “Ides of March” dawned on us.

There’s a great moodle (free online course) called the “7 Day Mental Kit for Surviving Lockdown”.

The week-long programme will take approximately one hour out of your day, but I have no doubt it will put a lot of energy back, recharging some run-down mental batteries and help you stay mentally fit.

The course content covers topics like mindfulness, planning your day (emphasising the need for routine), exercise, how to cope with anxiety and feelings of isolation – all those things we are struggling with under lockdown.

Some of the learning outcomes are how to maintain mental health during stressful times, improve mental resilience, and how to deal with depression and feelings of isolation during lockdown.

And don’t worry… you won’t be assessed. (But there are questions for self-reflection, and if you do the full course, you will even get a certificate.)

Lastly, if you feel down, remember this: The Dalai Lama said: “Choose to be optimistic, it feels better”.

I can promise you it does. And it will definitely help to #BuildBackBetter.

Stay well, stay safe.

Professor Lizette Rabe is also founding director of the Ithemba Foundation (ithemba means hope; www.ithembafoundation.org.za), a non-profit organisation with two public health goals: to raise awareness of depression and related diseases as clinical, biological diseases, and to support research. If you feel overwhelmed right now, please contact the following help lines:

Lifeline: 0861 322 322

SADAG: 0800 567 567 or sms 31393

Mental Health Information Centre (MHIC): 021 938 9229 or email mhic@sun.ac.za