Courtney doesn’t make it through full weeks of college. Two years ago she was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), making it extremely difficult for her to study and socialise for long periods of time. She will often have to miss classes or entire days of her undergrad.
But Courtney is one of the lucky ones. She didn’t have to rely on on campus mental health services. She went outside of college for help – an option which may not be feasible for the thousands of students currently seeking counselling services in Irish colleges.
Data published by the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability (AHEAD) last month showed a 41% increase in students seeking on campus mental health services. Almost a quarter of students are now presenting with depression, with 32% reporting anxiety related issues, and yet the services that Irish colleges offer do not appear to be meeting this ever growing demand.
Courtney found seeking appropriate on campus counselling for her mental illness extremely difficult. BPD is on the border of psychosis and neurosis, but is often most associated with depression and anxiety.
Courtney attended counselling in IADT. She did not have to wait long for an appointment, but was only taught basic day-to-day coping skills during her eight sessions.
“At no point did either therapist question what was wrong with me. I knew I had depression and anxiety, but I also knew there was something more to it. They never spotted that or suggested that I link in with a psychiatrist or go for an assessment. They were very much focused on how I got through college.”
When Courtney finally received her diagnosis, she realised that the kind of help she needed was not being offered to students on campus. “It was helpful because I had someone to talk to,” she mused, “but looking back now at the kind of therapy I have needed, it’s just not adequate.”
English graduate Orla had her own problems accessing adequate mental health services in college. Like Courtney, she opted to start counselling off campus because she felt she wasn’t getting the necessary treatment. Orla first discovered she had depression and anxiety during her undergrad. She told me that although the services her college offered “weren’t bad,” she felt they weren’t as accommodating as other services she had availed of.
“In college they seemed more anxious to get you out and get you fixed. It was like – ‘This is what you have. This is what you do. Now, leave.’ Which is understandable considering the amount of people coming in, but it was a bit dismissive too,” she said.
One issue many students face when trying to avail of mental health services is waiting lists. This year, the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) President Annie Hoey stated that some students were being told they had to wait 183 days before a counsellor could see them.
Orla found the waiting list in college “kind of damaging.” Instead of getting help, she was worrying that she was taking the place of somebody who might need the session more.
Neuroscience student Rachel had a similar experience trying to see a therapist in UCD last year. She heard from a friend there was a six week waiting list, and found that she couldn’t even get an appointment herself.
Rachel said the services in UCD were “overstretched and understaffed.” She eventually ended up seeking help elsewhere – an option she knows is not possible for many people.
“A six week waiting list is no good to someone suffering from self harm, suicidal thoughts or panic attacks. People can be moved up the list in urgent cases but I knew I wasn’t ‘depressed enough’ to qualify so I went to somewhere else. I was lucky.”
In 2013 the RCSI reported that 1 in 5 young people in Ireland were living with some kind of mental disorder. That number is higher than any other country in Europe and the United States.
Ireland also has the highest number of teen suicides in girls in Europe, and the second highest number of teen suicides in boys. And yet, the government doesn’t appear willing to invest in these desperately needed facilities. If it weren’t for numerous protests earlier this year, it is likely the proposed €700m diversion of mental health funding would have gone ahead.
DCU’s Head of Counselling Helena Ahern told me that the lack of government funding is stopping the college from meeting the counselling demand. Every year for the past 22 years there are more students requesting appointments, with an 18% increase this year alone.
Helena suggested that a synergy between the government and the education system is necessary to understand what students in Ireland need. In turn, this could lead to well equipped facilities, more available staff, and better care for students’ well-being.
Chair of DCU’s mental health society Sorcha Killian also believes that the onus is not on each individual college, but on the lack of funding. She said that DCU put in a lot of work to help students, but that the support staff are given is not sufficient.
“There’s an eight week waiting list to see a counsellor now and that isn’t the counsellor’s fault (…) The government won’t fund more. No college in Ireland is given enough funding.”
IADT is one college where money isn’t the only issue. They have one counsellor for 2,500 students, meaning that people are expected to wait weeks for an assessment. IADT education officer Neil Kavanagh told me that the services the college offer are “not even close” to meeting the demand of the people who need them.
“We’re currently in a situation where we have additional assistance, but we need a second full time counsellor to meet even half of the demand,” he said. “Money is always an issue but for us a lack of space is also a problem. It’s a necessary expenditure, but it’s a high expenditure too.”
IADT has been working on their own initiatives to support their students’ well-being. ‘My Anxiety’ artwork, as part of USI’s ChatsForChange campaign, is currently displayed around the campus encouraging students to talk about their mental health.
Similarly, DCU’s mental health society run a weekly mental health hub where students are invited to talk to other students trained in active listening. The hub is not just aimed at people who can’t get an appointment with a counsellor, but at students that might be afraid to take that first step in addressing their mental health.
It is clear that colleges in Ireland are simply unable to provide students with adequate mental health care. However, the frustration that this severe lack of services induces among students is rarely reflected in their judgements of counselling staff.
It appears that the issue is not just with colleges themselves, but the overarching mental health system currently in place in Ireland, and the shortage of necessary funding available. Campaigns, events, and raising awareness are constructive efforts to tackle Ireland’s mental health problem, but there is only so much that talking can do.