Mental Health and Higher Education: What are the mental health issues facing students in Higher Education in Ireland? What policies and services are in place on a university and national level? How could they be working better?
Back in March 2019, Science Gallery Dublin hosted a breakfast discussion on Mental Health in Higher Education with the Minister for Mental Health and Older People, Jim Daly.
Jim Daly was appointed Minister for Mental Health and Older People in 2017 and has overseen a number of changes to the sector. Most notably, the launch of Connecting for Life, a national suicide prevention plan, the provision of e-resources for signposting access to mental health services, and the concluding reports from both an independent Oversight Group as well as a Joint Committee in the Oireachtas (the Irish senate) for updating the national policy framework for mental health (last updated in 2006).
The number of students reporting a mental health condition in 2017 increased by 46% compared to the previous academic year. The challenges associated with the college experience – financial stress, academic expectation, career uncertainty, and social pressures – all contribute. There has never been a more important time to discuss mental health and well-being for students in higher education and the policies that the government has in place around these issues.
“Disgruntled attendees also showed their frustration at a lack of joined-up thinking [by the government] on mental health and higher education”
At the event, the Minister spoke about new initiatives from the Irish government to address mental health and well-being, and audience members discussed challenges facing students in higher education, and how students can be involved and co-create solutions.
The Minister placed emphasis on e-mental health services, quoting research that has shown that young people respond better to a screen than to face-to-face counselling. He affirmed that setting up a text line and an online mental health platform will work alongside a counselling service to be the most accessible that the service can be.
As of December 2019, there is now a directory available for download on the HSE’s website that lists all mental health service providers in the country. Citizens can access contact information and opening hours for a range of services, as well as searching for services by region, type of service provided (e.g. community care, counselling) and the group the service is catered to (e.g. youth, general adult, homeless). Ireland’s first 24-hour mental health information line was also launched in October of this year. It is free of charge to call and allows service users access to over 1,000 mental health service providers.
However, the audience were quite vocal in their critique of such services, emphasising that they shouldn’t be implemented in place of improving current waiting times and structures for more personal care. Disgruntled attendees also showed their frustration at a lack of joined-up thinking on mental health and higher education, due to the fact that the Minister for Education and the Minister for Mental Health and Older People are in separate departments and don’t work together on issues. Jim Daly reassured them with the fact that the Dáil (the Irish government) will be trying a new working method of departments working more closely – with these two departments being the first in this trial.
“We listened to concerns of 15-16 year-olds about mental health and well-being, leading up to tackling this challenge using co-creation”
This trial is known as the Pathfinder Project. In line with the recommendations of the National Youth Service Taskforce’s 2017 report, an inter-departmental Pathfinder initiative was to be established to bring about structural reform in the government’s approach to youth mental health policy and to assist in delivering the recommendations of the report.
The primary goal of the Pathfinder Project is to achieve greater communication and collaboration across the three departments (Department of Health, Department of Education and Department of Child and Youth Affairs) involved in youth mental health. However, the establishment of a Pathfinder team to lead the initiative has been delayed by budgetary concerns, with the Department of Public Expenditure blocking its establishment in 2018. As of 2019, “governance, staffing and funding issues” continue to impede the implementation of the Pathfinder project, according to a written response given by Simon Harris in the Dáil this July.
It is clear that substantive policy reform remains an ongoing issue for mental health services within the Irish context and that young people continue to suffer as a result. In a letter addressed to Harris, Children’s Ombudsman Dr. Niall Muldoon described the implications of the delay in establishing the Pathfinder project as “catastrophic” for those children and young people still awaiting mental health care.
“If I don’t know how to cope with exams and stress now, then how will I know how to do it by the time I’m at college?”
As well as Jim Daly’s speech, Science Gallery Dublin also showcased SISCODE and the work they had already undertaken during three workshop weeks. During these sessions, we listened to concerns of 15-16 year-olds about mental health and well-being, leading up to tackling this challenge using co-creation.
We invited youth representative, Callum, to speak to everyone about his experience so far. Callum went on to be one of our most involved stakeholders in the project. He urged the audience that waiting until Higher Education to give young people support for their mental health and well-being was too late. “You need to be giving us the tools to manage our mental health much sooner. If I don’t know how to cope with exams and stress now, then how will I know how to do it by the time I’m at college?”
We think Callum makes a great point, and for this reason are so proud that the solution co-created by our group of stakeholders focuses on a younger age, where tools for managing their mental health and well-being can be introduced early on.
#MentalHealthinHE even ended up trending on Twitter – that’s a sign of a successful event, right?!
Our next blog will be sharing the solution our group developed came up with actually is…
This event was hosted in collaboration with Women in Research Ireland.