Youth Month 2023: Nokubonga Zondi-Mehlomakulu

Youth Month 2023: Nokubonga Zondi-Mehlomakulu

June is Youth Month, and this year the NRF is celebrating the Youth of the NRF who are advancing knowledge, transforming lives, and inspiring a nation. We thank all participants for sharing their stories with us.

Mrs Nokubonga Zondi-Mehlomakulu is a second-year PhD candidate in Psychology at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). In 2018, she was awarded a DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence pre-Doctoral Fellowship based at the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa’s (CAPRISA) EThekwini Research Clinic. She currently receives funding from the NRF for her Doctoral studies.

How did your journey start?

I am a young woman who grew up in the beautiful valleys of Pietermaritzburg in a small suburb called Pelham. I have been privileged to be moulded and influenced by two educated parents who have helped shape my thinking and passion for understanding the human mind and behaviour. My mother, a special needs educator, elevated my understanding of emotions and equipped me with the skills and knowledge necessary to be a resourceful and responsible individual. My father, who is a lawyer, inspired my critical thinking. I grew up as an introverted child who was exceptionally observant, genuinely curious about life, and obtained knowledge through reading books, asking questions and exploring.

I went to Pietermaritzburg’s Girls High School which set the foundation for my interest in feminism and gender issues and nurtured a culture of academic excellence. My high school career further stimulated my interest in psychology because our school library had psychology books that I started reading in Grade 8. I studied a double major in psychology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and an Honours degree in Psychological Counselling through the University of South Africa.

After completing my Bachelor’s degree, I started seeking work experience to better prepare myself for my postgraduate studies. This journey started with me working as an applied behaviour analysis (ABA) technician for children with autism and other neurodevelopmental challenges at Triad Therapy Centre. Concurrently, I worked as a volunteer crisis counsellor at LifeLine and Rape Crisis Pietermaritzburg. The crisis counselling cases I dealt with ranged from rape, suicide, psychological distress and HIV/AIDS education.

Pursuant to completing my Honours, I continued with volunteer counselling at Christelike Maatskaplike Diens (CMD) and their associated child and youth care centres (CYCCs). This position included offering support to social workers on cases requiring psychological/psychiatric intervention and counselling children in care who have experienced trauma in their homes.

I then studied for a Master’s in Research Psychology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. After my coursework year, I was fortunate to be granted a DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence for HIV Prevention Fellowship at CAPRISA, which also served as my HPCSA psychologist internship. The following year I was awarded a Master’s traineeship at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). I held various roles, including provincial coordinator and co-investigator for health surveys on COVID-19 and gender-based violence. This journey has led me to my current pursuit: a PhD in Psychology at UJ. While pursuing my doctorate, I have been a seasonal undergraduate lecturer at UJ. I have also been a Cambridge A-level psychology lecturer at the British International College and an academic tutor at the British International Distance College.

How has your affiliation with the NRF impacted your studies/career?

My fellowship at CAPRISA set the foundation for my interest in HIV research. CAPRISA offered comprehensive knowledge and experience in clinical research, particularly in HIV clinical vaccine trials under the HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN). My training included using research databases such as Redcap, creating and maintaining regulatory filing systems, and registering participants in the Biometric Co-enrolment Prevention System (BCEPS). I also learned how to screen participants, schedule clinic visits, and do quality checks on case report forms.

Beyond technical and academic knowledge of HIV research in South Africa, I was also exposed to information on social and behavioural factors surrounding the HIV pandemic. I have become well-versed on current gaps in research aimed at ending the HIV pandemic, which has heavily influenced my current doctoral thesis topic and has helped me have a better vision for my future research specialisation.

My current Doctoral scholarship offers me the peace of mind of knowing that my expenses are covered, and all I need to do is to focus on my academics. I look forward to future engagement opportunities as an NRF affiliate.

Did you have to overcome any obstacles to be where you are today, and what did you learn from it?

My undergraduate journey was not easy as I struggled with health issues leading to multiple hospitalisations yearly. This was emotionally taxing for me to deal with academic pressure and stress related to my health. However, I was fortunate to complete my degree even though my ongoing ill health significantly affected my study times. In my final year, I had to go for surgery which ended in complications and extended hospitalisation. This challenged my plans to study for my Honours full-time, as I needed a few months to recover. Since I was determined to fight for my dreams, I resorted to studying for my Honours degree part-time instead of not studying for the year. Two years later, during my CAPRISA Fellowship, I suffered a traumatic experience where I was hijacked at gunpoint and sustained some injuries. This experience delayed my Master’s qualification by a year.

These experiences have first taught me a lot about my resilience. It has also taught me that determination alone can get you to where you are destined, no matter how great a challenge may seem.

What is your research focus on/what is your area of expertise?

My thesis is on psychological distress and substance use in key populations.

This research explores how mental health and substance use disorders co-occur in people at the highest risk of contracting HIV, e.g. homosexual men, bisexual men, men who have sex with men (GBMSM), female sex workers, transgender people, and people who inject drugs. This study further explores how the stigma experienced by these key populations influences their decisions to seek healthcare for substance use and mental health issues.

How can your work/studies advance knowledge, transform lives, and inspire a nation?

Research on HIV healthcare uptake and prevention among key populations in South Africa tends to focus on either (1) sexual and reproductive health; (2) stigma towards HIV-positive people; or (3) adherence to HIV treatment and healthcare uptake. Broad research has found that key populations have an enhanced risk of mental illness due to structural issues like stigma and often use drugs as therapeutic means to cope with psychological difficulties. This further exacerbates psychological distress symptoms and increases the risk of engaging in risky sexual behaviour. However, the Mental Health Policy Framework and Strategic Plan 2013-2020 of South Africa largely ignores mental health in key populations. Research has also broadly shown that stigma is a deterrent to seeking healthcare for sexual and reproductive health, HIV management, and mental healthcare.

This research hopes to reflect on the intersectional stigmas experienced by key populations within the South African context. Investigating the current mental health status and substance use behaviours in key populations can offer insight into factors that lead to high-risk sexual behaviours and understanding social and behavioural determinants of HIV transmission. Understanding barriers to seeking healthcare may give further insight into how stigma affects decisions around sexual behaviour and psychological coping. It can further explain key populations’ mental health care needs. This study hopes to inform healthcare policy on comprehensive strategies integrating mental healthcare, gender-affirming care and substance cessation approaches to improving key populations’ health outcomes.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

My proudest moments include my two DSI-NRF awards that I have achieved and receiving a Certificate of Merit in my Master’s year of study. Also, the opportunity to co-author two journal publications during my tenure at the HSRC.

What are your career aspirations for the future?

I endeavour to become an NRF-rated researcher, a university professor, and a research consultant on topics around key populations, stigma and socio-behavioural research on high-risk sexual behaviours. 

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