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Students Waiting Up To 6 Weeks for Counselling Services

On October 10th thousands of Irish people took to social media to post inspirational stories, quotes, and valuable contact details in celebration of World Mental Health Day. In the demanding grind of college students, in particular, are facing increased challenges with regards to their mental health. Depression, anxiety, substance misuse and suicidal behaviour are all issues that affect students, yet they cannot get the support they need. Third-level counselling services are now putting students on waiting lists for up to six weeks, simply because they don’t have the facilities to accommodate the large numbers.

The annual budget for 2018 was released by Finance Minister Paschal Donohue earlier this month. The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) called on the government to increase investment in third-level mental health services. Michael Kerrigan, USI President, believes that the budget should be focusing on improved mental health services as opposed to tax cuts. The union suggested ring-fencing €3 million per year to tackle future mental health crises on campus. This would mean the Government would allocate €3m each year that could only be used for student mental health services.

Counsellors working on third level campuses have said that the number of students seeking help for depression, anxiety, relationship problems and other mental health issues has reached unprecedented levels. Approximately 10,000 students are attending counselling at any one time across the country, which would account for 6-8% of students on every campus. The increased demand for counselling could be linked to the reduced stigma surrounding mental health – student-led campaigns such as Please Talk and Chats for Change encourage students to talk about their mental health, and to look for help if they need it – however, the stressful life of third-level education could also be a contributing factor.

The Psychological Counsellors in Higher Education Ireland (PCHEI) conducted a report in 2014/2015 which shows that 27% of students who availed of counselling services indicated that the support received was a factor in the continuation of their studies, while 23% said that it helped with their overall academic performance. The representative body stated that with increased funding for third-level services we would see a small step in preventing the death of students.

The budget came under criticism, however, from numerous mental health agencies. They say that the Government has ‘failed to deliver promised funding for mental health’ in this year’s budget, with additional funding of just €15 million. This figure is a ‘huge and disappointing shortfall from the €35 million that was promised for budget 2018′, according to Green Party TD Catherine Martin. The party accused the Government of ‘misleading the public’ over the levels of funding allocated to mental health.

Minister of State for Mental Health and Older People, Jim Daly, confirmed that €20M of the €35M announced in Budget 2018 reflects funding already promised in 2017. The current Government had committed to investing €55 million into mental health services, yet instead, Leo Varadkar put the most emphasis on reducing tax bills.

Director of Mental Health Reform, Shari McDaid, said, “Ireland’s mental health services are under severe pressure and last week, RTÉ reported that they need approximately €65M just to maintain existing levels of service in the context of increased demand. We are deeply concerned that essential mental health services will not be in place for people in mental distress who need them, and that new developments including expanding access to out-of-hours mental health services will not be possible within the financial constraints set by this Budget.”

With public mental health services in financial trouble nationwide, it is no surprise that third-level institutions are also struggling to keep up with the increasing numbers of students in need of support. The USI and Mental Health Reform are both calling on the Government to ring-fence funding for the sector and to fulfill their promise of a €55 million investment.

The Express spoke to a student, who asked to remain anonymous, about their experiences with the mental health services:

I’d been struggling with my mental health for years, barely scraping through the leaving cert with no help from my school or parents. When I got to college, and the stress, depression and anxiety didn’t go away, I spent my food budget on getting an appointment with my GP. They told me that if I wanted a referral for a psychiatrist I could either go public (HSE) or private (a doctor in Douglas). I said I’d have to go public, as I didn’t really have the money for this appointment, nevermind another one, and the doc told me I’d be waiting at least six months for an appointment, and even then I wouldn’t be guaranteed getting the help I needed. So I had to go private, which meant giving up more of my budget for food and rent. I don’t think I ate a proper meal for two months.

The college services weren’t much help, which wasn’t totally their fault, I guess. I got one counselling appointment towards the end of the year, and that was it, pretty much.