Mental health: Record numbers of third-level students seek help

New data shows sharp rise in cases of self-harm and identity issues among students

Record numbers of third-level students are receiving counselling for mental health problems such as anxiety.

Almost 12,000 students sought counselling in the last academic year, up from about 6,000 students in 2010, according to data compiled by Psychological Counsellors in Higher Education Ireland (PCHI).

Anxiety accounted for half of all such referrals last year, while there has been a sharp increase in the cases of self-harm (up from 5 to 11 per cent) and identity issues (from 8 to 14 per cent) in recent years.

The new figures come at a time of concern over the rising rates of anxiety among young people.


Among the factors counsellors believe are behind the increased levels of anxiety are the growing awareness of mental health issues, pressures linked to social media, personal and family expectations over academic success, and financial difficulties.

Treasa Fox, spokeswoman for the PCHI, said anxiety problems can involve an array of issues, such as social anxiety, panic attacks, acute stress, persistent worrying, phobias, withdrawal and isolation.

She said college counselling services were reporting the increasing complexity and severity of issues presenting over the past decade.

Students with disabilities, including mental health problems, and international or non-Irish students were more likely to seek counselling than other groups of students.

Counselling supports

Ms Fox said counselling supports were helping to prevent at-risk students from dropping out of third level, as well as improving their academic performance and helping the development of life skills.

However, she said the number of counsellors per student, one for every 2,600 students, was very low compared with the recommended ratio agreed by the International Association of Counselling Services: one counsellor for every 1,000-1,500 students.

The Government’s youth mental health taskforce recently recommended the “current provision of counselling and mental health supports in higher-level institutions should be maintained and enhanced”.

While there was an increase in staffing levels this year, Ms Fox said counselling services in Irish third-level institutions were still relatively understaffed.

This means students can often end up waiting for weeks before they have access to a counsellor. Latest figures show waiting times vary from between seven to 40 working days, depending on individual colleges.

Ms Fox said a rapid response to students in need of support was critical to achieving better outcomes.

Counselling services, she said, are heavily reliant on unpaid counsellors, with interns, trainees and volunteers accounting for one-fifth of counselling teams.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent