Third level in distress: how colleges are coping with mental health

‘Extremely worrying’ that students in distress might have to wait weeks to see a counsellor


College fees, assignments, moving away from home – it should be no surprise that third level can be a stressful time for young people. The beginning of college marks a transitional period for students, and often represents the exciting beginning of adult life. But the pressure of third level can also be the cause of increased levels of anxiety and depression, as well as other mental health difficulties.

The student demographic is particularly vulnerable to mental distress from a biological perspective, with 75 per cent of mental distresses emerging before the age of 25. As a result, and with an increase in research being done in the area, third-level institutions are struggling to juggle the academic and the health needs of their students along with balancing the budget.

Mental health problems among college students are more common than perhaps even the students themselves realise. “The time when you come into university or college, that is when you should expect to find high levels of the first onset of mental distresses, because that’s the age profile,” says Dr Paul Moriarty, head of student counselling and development at University College Cork (UCC). “There’s a need to be more aware of that, that it’s normal to experience it far more in a university setting.”

According to Róisín O’Mara, welfare officer for UCD Students’ Union, “Mental health issues can be exacerbated or even started by the stress of university. A lot of the time people don’t realise the amount of stress they’re putting themselves under until it reaches a crisis point.”

There is no funding specifically for counselling services at third level, which has resulted in a dearth of expenditure in the area. Colleges are struggling to cope with the demand for their counselling services, and students are often put on waiting lists for counselling appointments.

“We’re probably resourced to meet about 5-6 per cent of the student body for counselling, whereas a number of colleges in the UK have been demonstrating that they’re up at about 10 per cent, and I would say that is closer to the reality [of the extent of mental distress among students],” says Moriarty. “There is a 10 per cent annual increase in demand for counselling, but the resources wouldn’t be meeting that demand.”

President of the Union of Students in Ireland, Annie Hoey, says it’s “extremely worrying” that students in distress might have to wait several weeks for an appointment with a counsellor. “I think a lot of people would agree with me that they’re under-resourced and under-financed, not necessarily at the fault of the institutions, but because there’s no specific ringfenced funding around provision of counselling and frontline services for students,” she says.

Although funding for counselling services may be scarce, this doesn’t mean that universities are ignoring the problem. As well as examining further funding options, many institutions are using innovative and more casual options for easing stress outside of the traditional therapy-based approach.

As Ireland’s first health-promoting university, UCC has made mental health one of five key areas for its Health Matters group, designed to promote positive wellbeing. Last year they launched a bibliotherapy scheme for students and staff. Doctors in UCC made a list of books available in the library that can be used for self-help for non-emergency cases of mental distress.

“Bibliotherapy is a very well-established technique in treating people in mental distress or with anxiety or depression,” says Emily Lynch, a member of the Health Matters team. “Where they come in handy is if you have a student who comes into student health or counselling and they might be anxious or stressed out, if there’s a wait to get to a counselling service, the doctor will give them the booklet and advise the student to get a certain book out of the library in the meantime and read up on it. It’s all about empowering them to take control over it.”

Different angles

Holistic wellness has also become a feature of college life. “Mind, Body and Soul is our wellness festival, if you want to call it that,” says O’Mara. “We have a mini one in the first semester with things like puppy cuddling and a bouncy castle, to try to reduce stress, and we’ll hopefully do a bigger one in semester two.”

Although the measures are welcome, many note that they are not suitable for replacing treatment for students with acute or prolonged mental health difficulties. While they promote and raise awareness about mental wellbeing on campus, it does not take away from the need to have resources for counselling in place.

Hoey says that campaigns such as USI’s ‘Chats for Change’ have an important role in reducing stigma around mental health, but that it’s unsafe to rely solely on campaigns which urge people to talk. “We see billboards around the country saying it’s the little things, just talk about it. It’s irresponsible to say just talk about it and not to have the resources there when people say ‘Okay, I’m going to do this,’” she says.

“USI has a student support card which we developed, which has a list of free helplines such as the Samaritans, Aware and Teenline that you can ring to talk to someone. It’s not the one-on-one face-to-face intervention that people need, but these services are a positive step for someone to use if they aren’t ready for face to face yet or can’t get it.”

Being able to get mental health treatment at college is a key factor for retention of students with mental health difficulties, which Moriarty notes can have very real benefits for the colleges themselves, as well as the students.

“We have a questionnaire for clients to check how student counselling directly impacts on their retention, on staying in college, and progression, and there are very high percentages in that,” he says. “Institutes need to be helped to see that it is a really worthwhile investment, because if they lose one student it could be a €32,000 loss over four years, whereas a counselling session for that student is €60 or €70. They need to be able to see that an early intervention with focused support makes huge sense and helps that student stay in college or progress.”

Although he says that awareness is still required, Moriarty adds that improving mental health treatment on campus is a matter of education – but for the universities rather than the students.

“I think further resources are needed, there’s no question about that,” he says. “However, we’ve got to help the authorities in universities and in institutes of technology first to see that it’s normal, that there would be high instances of presenting issues in college settings, because of the age profile and also because of the added stresses that students face because they’re in that context.

“Mental health is not going away. We’re fighting the good fight,” he laughs.

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