All that’s stopping UCD being a national leader in positive mental health promotion is management

Image Credit: Dominic Daly

UCD faculty have been at the forefront of youth mental health research in Ireland. So why is it that a university, home to some of the most talented leading researchers in youth mental health, has been so slow to take a proactive approach to respond to the needs of students? – UCDSU President Ruairí Power shares his perspective following a number of years holding UCD to account on the issue.

Why is supporting mental health services like pulling teeth for the University Management Team (UMT)? Management inaction on the obvious and immense potential for UCD to become a national leader in positive mental health promotion has been the most frustrating experience of my time as an elected officer. What’s more, the past two years have been an incredibly difficult experience for anyone who struggles with their mental health and those who work in support units. Surely to God anyone with an ounce of cop-on would recognise the need for fronting up the necessary resources and to be proactive on responding to the needs of students.

Having seemingly learned nothing from the last decade, where austerity put a huge strain on counselling services, a significant waiting list has been allowed to fester once more. Before the onset of the pandemic, demand for the service has steadily increased year-on-year. From the 2015/16 academic year to 2020/21, there has been a 51% jump in registrations. The number of appointments being offered annually to students has more than doubled in the same period. Despite the best efforts of the counselling team, students in many cases will simply not be able to receive supports when they need it, as increased registrations are leading to a significant increase in waiting times. This is partially precipitated by a Covid-19 surge, but the scale of the crisis has been largely compounded by inexcusable neglect by the University Management Team (UMT).

A charitable view would argue that UCD management have a tough gig. A decade-long funding crisis isn’t easy to manage, and the creeping commercialisation of the sector is predominantly the fault of consecutive conservative Governments hell-bent on starving essential public services of funding. That said, management commitments to creating an inclusive “University for All” amount to nothing more than virtue signalling when in a pre-Covid context more money was allocated to business class flight expenses than the student counselling service annually.

Management can’t plead ignorance

A 2017 external review produced five core recommendations for the development of a well-functioning campus mental health support network. The recommendations outlined a clear requirement for forward planning, a whole-of-University approach, and careful monitoring/evaluation. On each of these counts, UCD management has fallen far short of the specified recommendations. Incremental staffing increases haven’t corresponded to the scale of increased demand for services. The one significant positive development in recent years has been the appointment of a capable and student-focused clinical lead for the student counselling service.

In 2020 a group of students involved in the Fix Our Education campaign (myself included) picketed a UMT meeting in opposition to what we believed to be the commercialisation of UCD and the lack of investment in student support services. Included on the list of demands was reducing reliance on outsourcing and building up capacity in the student counselling service. The UMT response according to meeting minutes was as follows: “For example, there is a peak counselling demand period in September-October, hence the need to partially out-source services. It is not economically sound to employ additional counsellors for a short period.”. Contrary to the remarks in the minutes, the scheme operates all year round, and has done for years. Whichever member of the UMT offered these words of wisdom at the time managed to compound Thatcherite soundbites with blatant falsehoods, both of which should be of serious concern to students.

That year alone, 42% of overall services were delivered by external providers. External services fill an important gap and have a role as a pressure valve. The scheme has however ballooned beyond the original intent and at this stage demonstrates the extent to which service demand increases haven’t been matched with corresponding recruitment to the UCD service. Today, there ratio of counsellor to students in UCD is 1:4215. International best practise advises a ratio of 1:1500. It’s clear that ad-hoc solutions will only ever act as a temporary fix that can’t account for the benefits of building up internal capacity. Recruitment will take time, so there’s no room for any hesitancy going forward if we’re to match growing needs.

Excuses, excuses, excuses

It’s reasonable that management won’t always be fully briefed on the operations of every unit in UCD. What’s far less excusable is blanket dismissal of concerns raised by students by individuals in positions of leadership. Branding the concept of building capacity for our mental health supports as “economically (un)sound” from individuals on hefty three figure salaries reinforces the stereotype of management figures being totally removed from the realities facing students.

At every opportunity over the past two years, I have raised the need for the development of a fully costed mental health strategy on the UCD Governing Authority and at other relevant committee meetings. Responses often downplayed the urgency of the situation and dismissed the need for a strategic approach over incremental staffing increases.

It’s important to note that many of the necessary components for success are already in place. The counselling team bend over backwards to support students. Many of them postponed leave during the onset of the pandemic to make sure any student who needed to be looked after got sorted. Huge credit is due to the clinical lead for adapting so quickly to a hybrid model of supports. Student Advisors, Chaplains and various other support units are an invaluable source of assistance outside of a clinical capacity for those who need it. A university with a robust network of staff dedicated to supporting students has so much to gain from a meaningful and well-resourced strategy. A lack of forward planning inevitably means that important initiatives that should be championed slip through the cracks.

Matching ambition with funding

Chasing a good degree is a pressure-cooker environment for young people at the best of times. Doing so during a cost-of-living crisis and in the midst of a public health emergency is going to place a trojan strain on our collective wellbeing. We need a proactive approach to positive mental health promotion to mitigate the worst of this. My colleague UCDSU Welfare Officer Molly Greenough has been collaborating with the counselling service to run a really useful series of workshops called “Re-Imagining Mental Health- The Art of Living in Challenging Times”. These sort of initiatives are worthwhile, but are extremely limited in scope without buy-in from leadership and strong University-wide promotion.

The National Mental Health and Suicide Prevention framework could force a major re-shape of priorities for the entire Higher Education sector. The framework is an ambitious plan for developing sectoral improvements in the delivery of mental health support to students. Similarly, the Government’s new Higher Education Authority bill includes a potentially useful mechanism to encourage Universities to step up to the mark for supporting students. UCD will be provided with an increase in ring fenced funding to build up support service capacity as set out by the framework. Should funds be allocated in a manner that doesn’t align with the criteria set out in the plan, the bill allows for financial penalties to be applied.

UCD is also required by the framework to establish a mental health committee with broad representation from around the University. The committee will be responsible for evaluating existing resources, planning for development of a comprehensive mental health supports network and monitoring progress going forward. For this strategy to have teeth, UCD leadership needs to reflect it with matching long term budgetary commitments and proactive engagement with relevant units.

For the work of the UCD mental health committee to be meaningful, it’s clear that a fully costed and publicly available strategy is needed with multi-annual recruitment and retention targets specified for all units involved in supporting student mental health. There’s every possibility such a strategy could not only work to address staffing issues, but given the level of expertise available on youth mental health around the table there is really no reason why UCD can’t become a national leader on student supports.

The UMT has immense power to change how the university operates. On previous occasions, they have shown huge leadership in embracing universal design, a progressive gender identity policy, and investing in hybrid learning to give a few examples. It’s time they stepped in from the cold on supporting student mental health and showed a radical commitment to championing the work of this committee.

Given events to date, it would be complacent of students to take a passive approach on this. We need well-coordinated student mobilisation demanding that management take hold creating a strong mental health support network. Nobody should have to wait months to get the help they need. Students can’t afford a half-baked strategy implementation, so the student movement has to be ready to constructively engage and sound the alarm bells where necessary. The UMT needs to throw the kitchen sink at the issue if they’re serious about supporting student wellbeing, and we’ll be here to hold them to account if they don’t.