Did you know ER24 offers a dedicated service designed to meet the emergency and safety needs of tertiary institutions throughout South Africa? Too often, students themselves aren’t aware they have access to expert counsellors on campus. ER24 works with several top universities around South Africa to establish what is known as ER24 Safe Zones. These services include 24-hour emergency medical assistance, medical transportation for patients to the closest appropriate hospitals, a medical hotline and round-the-clock support services, which in itself includes face-to-face counselling for learners.

It is a well-established fact that most universities employ an in-house psychologist to help and comfort their students through the day. This is to assist young people in dealing with the unique stresses and pressures of campus life.

But those doctors or psychologists are on campus from 8am until 4pm, explains Adriaan Grobler, Trauma Support Counsellor for ER24: Western Cape. “At that point, they hand over to me. Remember, during the day, these students go to class. Afterwards, they head back to their residences, and this is where the work really starts. They try to unwind, they start preparing for the next day, they start to study for exams. They have a chance to think. The stress builds. This can be an emotionally fraught period.”

“We handle all traumas or incidents that may arise in the late afternoon, evening and through the night. This includes weekends and public holidays. So how busy am I? I’m fairly busy yes.”

Grobler says this counselling provides a valuable service for young people, many of whom are living away from home for their first time. “The majority of university students are facing new pressures,” he says. “Full-time studying requires intense focus and concentration. Tertiary institutions set a high standard, and there is a lot at stake. Social life can be hectic too – peer pressure is a very real danger for young people who may be vulnerable. Some of our students look fine on the outside but really, they are battling – because success or failure in this environment can have lifelong repercussions.”

It is Grobler’s view, based on many years of experience, that not all first-year students are equipped and prepared for university life. For the majority, becoming independent overnight is a challenge, and ER24 is there to help them along that journey.

Grobler tells the story of a student who came in for counselling after his favourite rap artist in US passed away. “In a scenario like that we can’t say, Son, you need to just grow up and get over it. We would never, ever do that, to judge someone like that. Instead, I sat down and talked to him. And as it turned out, he had a close family member who had recently passed away, and he hadn’t addressed it. This incident was a trigger for him, and he just could not get past it without a little help.”

ER24 counsellors are guided by the same question that directs all EMS responders: what is trauma? “Trauma is an experience that threatens your life or health, or someone close to you. It is a threat that overwhelms any coping mechanism you may have.”

Trauma can have an especially lasting effect on young people. “These students are on their own. They don’t have trusted family members or elders readily available to lean on – they lack advice and the leadership they need to be guided. Some of the incidents we see here can be devastating. The last thing we want is for them to be traumatised for life.”

Emotional stress – including anxiety and depression – is not the only form of trauma Grobler helps his students with on a daily basis. Universities can also see incidents of physical assault, sexual abuse, crime-related trauma, substance abuse and even attempted suicide.

Grobler is not one man alone against a tide of trauma on campus, however. He relies on a team of locums who take over when needed. But to ready them for the unique requirements of counselling students through campus life, Grobler first takes them through a tougher initiation.

“My locum team also support me in our outreach to a school in Khayelitsha. Many of those students have seen major trauma, from home invasions to rape and murder. They are committed to provide a free social service to these learners, who have been through some tragic circumstances.

“Pressure, however, it comes, is not to be underestimated. Sometimes it can cause you to lose control of your emotions. At that point, we must be ready to help guide these young people back to their lives.”