Ross Walsh examines the current attitude around students’ mental health.
THERE is a strange disassociation between how we, as a society, view our physical health and our mental health. It seems easy, in the absence of a bleeding wound or a bout of vomiting, to say there can’t be anything wrong here. “Sure you’re grand” is a phrase that sums up Irish attitude towards mental health up until the very recent past.
Luckily, things are changing for the better. The work of numerous organisations such as Mental Health Ireland, Pieta House, and The Samaritans have highlighted that looking after your mental health is an important part of living a happy and fulfilling life.
In a fantastic example of how aware Irish people are of mental health, vast public outcry earlier this year influenced the current government to reverse an earlier decision to cut €12 million from the mental health budget.
Another instance would be the outrage provoked by recent revelations that some of the funds for mental health charity Console were misused by the founder of the charity, Paul Kelly. In light of this much greater appreciation for the role our mental health plays in our overall well-being, the question must be asked; is student mental health getting the attention it deserves?
“young people are perhaps the most vulnerable to negative fluctuations in their mental health”
For young people, mental health should be of the utmost concern. Mental Health Ireland states that around 1 in 4 Irish people will suffer from some form of depression at some point in their lives. More specifically to students, some reports indicate that 75% of all mental illnesses first occur between the ages of 15 and 25.
This should hardly come as a shock. From puberty to Leaving Certificate Exams and entering third-level education, to getting a degree and entering the workforce, this period is a time of tremendous change, stress, upheaval and pressure. Coupled with a cultural inheritance that replaces a therapist with a bottle of cheap whiskey, young people are perhaps the most vulnerable to negative fluctuations in their mental health.
The consequences of mental ill health can be far reaching, and extremely dire. It can impact on a student’s academic performance, personal life, and physical health in a multitude of different ways. Physical effects range from issues with sleeping patterns all the way to an increased risk of heart disease, according to the American Centre for Disease Control. Another issue that is increasingly coming to light is what some commentators have called an “epidemic” of suicides. There was a time when coroners would record suspected suicides as “accidental” deaths, but as we slowly gain a more accurate view of the scale of the problem, mental illness poses a threat not just to people’s health, but also their lives.
“There needs to be a commitment from every university to make sure that available resources keep up with the increasing demand”
Given how deadly the problem can become, and how closely it ties into other areas of our health, less than 7% of the health budget being spent on mental health services is incredibly short-sighted on the part of the government.
Looking further though than just the state, what role can universities play in looking out for the mental health of their students? Most, if not all, third-level colleges offer counselling services to their students. Dublin Institute of Technology has seen over a thousand of their students seek out these services so far this year. This can be hailed as a sign of the aforementioned new wave of awareness surrounding mental health. Thus there must be commitment from every university to make sure that resources keep up with the increasing demand.
The Union of Students in Ireland has said that the waiting list for counselling services in college can be up to six weeks. This is simply not good enough. Many students, especially in first year, find themselves alone and isolated in a new city. When this is coupled with the pressures and stresses of writing essays and studying for exams, it produces an incredible amount of strain on the student’s mental health. This is a concern that universities, including UCD, have an obligation to address for the good of the student body.
Both our government and university administration have failed to give the necessary impetus to ensuring students’ mental health is well looked after, and down the line the consequences of this lackadaisical attitude to the well-being of young people will continue to reverberate in our health service.
However, students themselves have shown remarkable willingness to confront these issues, as is evidenced by the popularity of the Please Talk campaign in UCD. There are also a multitude of independent organisations that can be contacted should a student feel that their mental health is suffering. At the end of the day, Irish students ought to know that mental health, just like physical health, is worth looking after.