Record demand for mental health supports among students, Oireachtas committee hears

Colleges struggle to cope with demand for counselling from students under pressure

Irish universities are struggling to cope with a surge in demand for mental health supports, according to counsellors.

A decrease in stigma around mental health, plus increasing anxiety and academic pressure to do well, appear to be factors in the rise in demand for counselling services.

An Oireachtas education committee on Tuesday heard there is record demand for mental health supports among students in the current academic year.

Trish Murphy of the Irish Council for Psychotherapy said demand for support in higher education this year will "completely overshadow" last year's total of almost 14,400 students who attended clinical sessions.


In the case of Trinity College Dublin - where she is acting director of student counselling - she said the university has already experienced an increase of 23 per cent in demand for counselling with three months to go in the current academic year.

“I think our young people put huge pressure on themselves,” Ms Murphy said. “I think their parents’ expectations are very high; their expectations of themselves; and when they come to college and find they are not head of the class like they used to be, the effect on them can be absolutely devastating.”

She said there has been a trend towards more young women seeking support in recent years. However, many young men were in crisis.

Dr Joseph Duffy, chief executive of the youth mental health service Jigsaw, said its most recent 2019 survey found the proportion of young adults reporting severe anxiety increased from 15 to 26 per cent, while those reporting severe depression has increased from 14 to 21 per cent.

“This is over the course of one decade. These, I am sure you will agree, are alarming figures,” he said.

The current landscape of mental health and wellbeing supports for students across third level, meanwhile, was “fragmented and inconsistent”, Dr Duffy said.

Far too often, he said, colleges were relying on the efforts of individual staff members or student bodies, rather than adopting a coherent, cross-campus approach to mental health.

“We believe it is imperative that a whole-of-campus, collaborative approach is needed, part of which will include the active participation of students and the move towards embedding wellbeing in curricula. This must be a core component of the educational journey of all students,” Dr Duffy said.

In consulting with its youth volunteers, he said many felt they were not adequately supported, lacked awareness of where to go for help and often needed to “jump through hoops” in order to access support.

He said students wanted a more sustained focus on mental health and wellbeing as part of the student experience and to move away from once-off initiatives, such as “wellbeing weeks”.

Dr Duffy said mental health and wellbeing need to be embedded within the core learning environment of students, not just through campus support services or activities of student unions, along with targeted supports for “at risk” students.

Mark Smyth, former president of the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI). said there was an urgent need to expand our psychological workforce, especially due to the impact of Covid-19 on young people.

However, he said Government reports show a significant shortfall in the number of psychologists being trained in third level to meet demand.

A 2021 HSE report estimated an additional 321 psychologists were required in mental health services alone to meet demand.

This, he said, did not take into account demand in other areas such as education and higher education.

“What we have failed to address thus far, despite repeated direct advocacy to Government,is how we plan for increasing the number of training places and associated funding to the three professional training programmes to meet current and future demands,” he said.

If significant funding was to be allocated in this year’s budget for more higher education and training places,then at best an increased cohort of trainees could begin in September 2023 and that cohort would qualify in late 2026.

“Each year of delay to additional funding being allocated to third level psychology training programmes will add another three years to when they will qualify and enter the workforce,” he said.

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