The National Ambulance Service was contacted to help more than 400 people in “a place of real and active danger” following engagement with a text messaging service run by the youth mental health organisation SpunOut last year.
The charity said it had 33,000 support conversations through its 50808 service between June and December, with one-in-five people texting them to say they had suicidal thoughts.
SpunOut presented its data during an Oireachtas sub-committee hearing on Thursday, examining youth mental health challenges brought about by the pandemic.
Aimed at 16- to 34-year-olds, the committee heard the text service had delivered “quite an insight into the enormous strain on young people’s mental health”. To date it has engaged with more than 50,000 people.
“Many of today’s young people were children when their parents lost their jobs in the great financial crisis,” said SpunOut in its submission to the committee.
“Today they are facing into their own difficulties of a youth-unemployment rate that far outstrips the very worst days of the early 2010s. Insecurity building on insecurity passing between generations as crisis succeeds crisis is a sure-fire recipe for mental health disaster.”
The National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI) said it had noted an increase in people self-diagnosing with mental health conditions during the pandemic and also a “fatigue” in engaging with services online.
"Youth workers now feel that they are fulfilling roles outside their remit," said national youth health programme manager Rachel Treanor.
“For example, many youth workers are engaging in family support work by delivering food parcels; and supporting parents with issues that ideally should be dealt with in person, eg, supporting a young person through a bereavement or navigating the young person through a court case.”
Echoing the NYCI's call for a national taskforce on youth employment, Jack Eustace, SpunOut's governance and policy officer, said the situation facing young people is "extraordinary".
“It’s as high as 60 per cent joblessness among young people,” he said. And he added that when pandemic payment supports end it is unclear where those figures will settle.
“But youth unemployment was somewhere in the region of 12 per cent before the current crisis began. It will come to settle somewhere a good deal higher,” he said.
“The headline figure we have at the moment, potentially inflated as it is, that is more than twice the rate of joblessness among that cohort of young people that we saw at the beginning of the previous decade in the last crisis.”
SpunOut chief executive Ian Power said they had seen "higher rates of intensity in terms of crisis" among women than men during the pandemic.
“Through our research . . . younger men seem to be a little bit more relaxed as we settled into restrictions,” he said. “And actually we are seeing more and more young men struggling with eating and struggling with body image as well.”
People Before Profit TD Gino Kelly raised a recent report by the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland identifying cannabis as the "gravest threat" to the mental health of young people. Mr Kelly said some of the terminology in the report is unhelpful and that a debate on the subject is necessary.
Mr Power said he welcomed the issues being raised but did not agree with the College of Psychiatrists’s assessment.
“These are mental health disorders. These are things that are going to potentially impact young people for quite some time but I don’t think that we should kind of come at it from an alarmist perspective,” he said. “We should have a reasonable and balanced conversation about the issue.”