Colleges face up to crisis in mental health

Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology

Students with suicidal thoughts are presenting at counselling services in Galway’s third level institutes ‘every second day’.

The country’s third level counsellors’ association says its members are encountering a “tsunami of students presenting with mental health problems”, at NUI Galway and GMIT.

The Irish Association of University and College Counsellors (IAUCC), says that its services are partly snowed-under because the Health Service Executive (HSE) – who should be providing counselling – is making referrals of people with mental health difficulties to its services.

Dr Declan Aherne of IAUCC, and Head of Counselling at University of Limerick, said counselling services across the country including Galway’s two third level institutes – NUIG and GMIT – have lengthy waiting lists as suicide and mental health remains a huge issue among young people. This is at a time when third level colleges are facing budget cutbacks and recruitment embargoes.

Dr Aherne says society has ‘lost its way’ since the fall-off in trust in the Catholic church, and the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, which has contributed to the explosion in mental health problems and suicide.

“When the Church was gone we lost our way . . . people are asking ‘what’s it all about?’ The recession has had an effect, too. People lost hope after the Celtic Tiger collapsed. They had something to aspire to and a purpose even if that was just about money and to be rich and famous. That’s gone now and people are lost,” he said.

Dr Aherne added: “We’re getting referrals from the HSE from people who need access to mental health services and who are being sent to us because the HSE doesn’t have the services to deal with them. Five years ago we had maybe 500 students a year. Now we’re over 1,000. We have 60 on a waiting list. That’s the same in Galway – it’s right across the board. It’s both good and bad: For years we were saying to people ‘come and talk to us’. Now we’re forced to say ‘come and talk to us but you’ll have to join the queue’.”

The students who present with suicidal thoughts, he said, are encountering the same difficulties as everybody else, it’s just that their coping mechanism isn’t as effective.

He said that some students are suicidal because they don’t have the “resilience to cope with life” for a variety of reasons including a lack of a support structure or breakdown of the family.

“Every second day we have students presenting with suicidal thoughts. Ten years ago that was unheard of – now it is every second day.”

Dr Aherne made the comments on the eve of IAUCC’s annual conference in Galway this weekend. The 20th annual anniversary of the association took place in Salthill Hotel this week..

The conference opening address was given by Kieran Loftus who is the Executive Director of Operations, NUIG and Michael Hannon, GMIT Registrar. The conference heard calls for the HSE to provide counselling drop-in centres in the community – based on the sort of services offered by third level institutes – to tackle the problem of suicide and mental health in the wider community.

Students can log on to pleasetalk.ie to find a range of relevant contact details including Samaritans (091-561222 or 1850-60-90-90) or Pieta House (093-25586).