On World Mental Health Day (October 10th), Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris launched the first National Student Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Framework to support students’ wellbeing. The report is preceded by a foreword where Minister Harris accounts for the mental health impact of “a year like no other.”
“For students, it has been remarkably tough,” the Minister says. “Many milestones have been missed. Many events cancelled. The normal college experience upended and the support of lecturers and friends moved online. Covid-19 has brought so many challenges for students, their studies and their mental health.”
The framework comes amidst the backdrop of increased Covid-19 restrictions, where social interaction is limited to one person meeting another outdoors or certain vulnerable groups constructing a support bubble to maintain care and interaction. Mental health concerns continue to be cited by many senior government officials as reason to avoid Level 5 restrictions.
The top stressors for students exist independent of the pandemic, the report finds: “Academic pressures; exam and assignment stress; transitions in and out of higher education; financial burdens; managing jobs and academic work; social and cultural pressures that include family, friends and intimate relationships; social media.” Minister Harris notes that “some students will face greater challenges than others including those in the LGBTQ+ community, international students, asylum seekers, mature students.”
Concern for student wellbeing has been widespread since the publishing of the 2019 My World-2 Survey, which found that almost 60% of those 18 to 25-year-olds surveyed in Ireland were classified as outside the normal range for both depression and anxiety. In 2018, the HSE recorded suicide as the leading cause of death in young people, with separate research stating that on average, 131 young people under the age of 30 die by suicide in Ireland each year.
The framework refers to the increase in students presenting at college counselling facilities and health services in the last five years, stating that institutions and individuals must strive to improve access to, and the resources going to, mental health support on campus. According to research, Ireland currently has one counsellor for every 2, 448 students—the national standard is one per 1,500.
Speaking on behalf of SÁMH, a UCC society active on campus for raising awareness around mental health, care and suicide prevention, chairperson Aleesha Wiegandt told University Express about her concerns. “Undoubtedly, the Covid-19 pandemic has truly exposed the dire need for increased access to mental health services, she began.”
“The Framework launched by Minister Harris certainly encompasses the changes that need to be made to improve this, however, the Budget 2021 commitment of just 1% of the overall health budget does not realistically reflect that change which the Framework seeks to implement.”
SÁMH raised the issue of telehealth, and accessing UCC Counselling Services through phone as a mark of progress – but one which must go further.
“There is a lot of excellent rhetoric circulating about mental health, suicide prevention and seeking help during the pandemic, but we need to ensure that this conversation is paired with the presence of preventative counselling services, not just crisis phonelines.”
UCC Counselling Services have moved to remote working for the duration of the pandemic, with appointments taking place online through Microsoft Teams and through the phone. It is an adaptation that mental health services across the country have had to make to continue care amidst Covid-19. Jigsaw Cork has migrated to online platforms, telehealth and video call, as has Pieta House.
The conversation around mental health has been amplified by the imposition of Level 5 lockdown restrictions across the country. Supports remain available, most virtually. Students are encouraged to utilise UCC Counselling Service and the textline 50808, an anonymous free support service accessed by texting UCC or HELLO to 50808.