A recent survey on student mental health, conducted by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), reveals that a large number of students are or have experienced some sort of mental health issue, ranging from anxiety to depression.

A total of 3,340 students across the island of Ireland responded to the survey with 38.4% of these reporting “extremely severe levels of anxiety”, 29.9% reporting depression and 32.2% of respondents saying they had a formal diagnosis of mental health difficulties at some point in their lives. The study shows that gender is a significant factor: non-binary students have the highest levels of severe anxiety at 61.3% while transgender students are most likely to be “severely extremely depressed.” A financial factor on student mental health also comes up with 52% of those depending on Credit Union loans reporting severe anxiety. 77.8% of those without stable living arrangements report depression. 23% of students surveyed had used an on-campus counselling service in the past while only 0.4% report that there was no wait in accessing the service. Most people find the service helpful but only 36.8% report being offered as many sessions as they needed. The majority of those who reported having a formal diagnosis of a mental health difficulty made use of the counselling service.

The report includes some qualitative elements with respondents given the opportunity to share some comments on their experiences of seeking help and their opinions. There were a wide range of experiences with both very positive and very negative feedback coming through. What comes through very strongly is the fact that students are most likely to seek help from an on-campus counselling service but there is also an inconsistency in the success of help available. For some students, the long waiting lists have been a barrier to them using the counselling service while others found the counselling services were under-resourced and not equipped to deal with their specific range of needs. At the launch of the report in Trinity College Dublin Gertie Raftery of the PCHEI (psychological counsellors in higher education in Ireland) commented about difficulties with the transience of students and the need for students to be able to access the same full range of care while at college as they can at home. Students may find they have to go through the convoluted process of transferring between local mental health services when they go away to college. A kind of health passport has been mentioned as a possible solution whereby students could easily access a full range of mental health services both at their place of study and at home.

Minister for Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor opened the launch. The minister spoke at length about the need for increased mental health literacy and also put the onus on the Higher Education Institutes (HEI) to respond to the report. However, she seemed reluctant to mention increased funding or resources for third level mental health services nor did she seem to address students’ difficulties in accessing mental health services while studying away from home. Later at the launch a student panel highlighted the need for funding and investment in fully staffed counselling services, but the minister had left by that stage.

In its pre-budget submission for the upcoming budget, USI have already proposed €100,000 additional funding per HEI which would cover the average salary of 1.5 additional counselling psychologists, €120,000 per HEI to support the adoption of a peer-lead support programme, and  €500,000 funding to support a pilot programme of 5 Student Support Coordinators for more effective case management for students who have complex mental health difficulties. It is still unclear if these proposals will be met. 

Ruairí Weiner is the President of Maynooth University Mental Health Society and was asked by the USI to give a student response to the report which is included as part of the report

Photo: Ruairi Weiner, Minister for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor, USI President Lorna Fitzpatrick, Former Chairperson of DCU Mental Health Society Sorcha Murphy

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