IN FAVOUR, argues Nathan Young:

The decision of the UCD Societies Council to not recognise the Mental Health and Wellbeing Society (MHWS) comes as no surprise to anyone who’s been involved in UCD student society life for any length of time. The Societies Council operate on the understanding that the less work they have to deal with, the less responsibility that they have to take on, the better. The creation of the MHWS would potentially create new work for the Societies Council, as they would have members of a committee seeking training in mental health First Aid programs such as SafeTalk and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST). It could be understood, that the Societies Council are taking some responsibility for the mental health of the students involved, or, more worryingly, that the committee are taking responsibility for the mental health of society members.

The fact is that members of societies are already affected by mental health issues, and that involvement in society life can have positive or negative effects on a person’s mental health. The Societies Council does not wish to avoid taking on extra responsibility, but rather to shirk the responsibility they already have on this issue. Allowing for the training of committee members in SafeTalk and ASIST would not carve out more responsibility for the Societies Council but rather, it  would recognise the responsibility that already exists.

To illustrate how this is a pattern in the operation of the Societies Council, see how sexual harassment is handled. As has been reported by this paper last semester, an alleged case of sexual harassment led to a meeting between the victims and the Societies Council. Nothing came of this meeting, and an internal report later concluded that this meeting should never have taken place. The same internal report recommends that Auditor training include presentations on the Sexual Harassment policies of the university. Two years of Auditor training have taken place since this report, and in neither of them were any such presentations given. That the Societies Council hasn’t included this in Auditor training doesn’t mean that sexual harassment doesn’t happen in society life, but it does mean the Societies Council can ignore the issue and pretend it’s not their place to deal with it.

In an email to the group behind MHWS, a Societies Officer cited “the transience involved, lack of training, lack of referral ability and lack of properly structured experience, knowledge and expertise”. However, it is also not the aim of the society to provide mental health care, but to “break down stigmas, raise awareness, and… provide a community sense that mental health isn’t stigmatised in UCD [sic]”. That kind of activity wouldn’t require any training, making any training they do receive a wise precaution. The society have stated that they are seeking training in SafeTalk and ASIST. This author has completed ASIST, which is offered and promoted by the HSE. It is the highest level of training available in suicide first aid. It is simply bunkum to claim that, should members of the committee receive ASIST, that they would have a lack of training. If the MHWS were recognised, they could even promote ASIST training to other societies committees. If members of a committee received conventional first aid training, it wouldn’t be to claim responsibility for all injuries but rather a recognition that injuries occur. Why would ASIST be any different?

The other concern risen by the Societies Council was that mental health was best dealt with by the Union. There are two obvious responses to this: First, that the Union are supportive of a mental health society, and second, that many societies overlap with SU mandated issues. Think of all the issues political parties share with the Union, from the repeal of the 8th amendment to accommodation. We already have an LGBTQ+ society and a Disability Inclusion and Awareness Society, both of which work with the Union to advocate their goals. Why would having a mental health society not comfortably fall into a similar space?

Ultimately, the Societies Council would like to pretend that mental health isn’t and shouldn’t be their responsibility, and so have denied recognition to a society who have done all the correct preparation work and who, if recognised, would almost certainly provide a benefit to student life.

AGAINST, Argues Melanie Kelly:

UCD’s mental health services (or lack thereof) have become a huge point of contention between students and admin staff. Growing waiting lists have become a recurring theme during Union elections, with promises to tackle the issue left unfulfilled. Every time UCD pours millions into frivolous vanity projects, students despair at the number of counsellor hours such money could have been put towards.

As pressing as the need for mental health services is on campus, the society system is not the best way to address this need, and could do more harm than good regardless of the intentions behind it.

Firstly, it’s unclear what would distinguish this society from the existing services on campus. In the application that was later rejected by the Societies Council, the society was pitched as one that “promotes positive mental health, break down stigmas, raise awareness, and… provide a community sense that mental health isn’t stigmatised in UCD [sic]”. Each of these actions is already being covered by some organisation within UCD, even if not to a wholly satisfactory level.

As well as a full-time sabbatical officer dedicated to student welfare, UCDSU has a Mental Health Campaigns Coordinator (Sadhbh O’Flaherty) to lead the sort of de-stigmatisation campaigns mentioned in the Mental Health and Wellbeing Society application. There are also services such as NiteLine and PleaseTalk which can provide the peer-led support that a society would potentially bring. There’s no convincing evidence that a society would do a better job than these groups, and it could be a more efficient use of students’ time and resources to build on established structures rather than starting a new group from scratch.

The main way that a Mental Health and Wellbeing Society could differentiate itself from these existing services is by providing a safe space for students to discuss their mental health, which gets into very risky territory from an ethical perspective. Even if the committee received SafeTalk training as they proposed in their application, they would need to decide how to handle confidentiality and other potential grey areas. For example, if a student disclosed that they were experiencing domestic abuse to members of the society, it’s unclear whether the society would be obliged to report this to prevent further harm to the student. Adopting this policy could make the society untrustworthy for vulnerable students, but equally, the society could be liable if they didn’t intervene.

The professional counselling that UCD already provides is much better suited to deal with these cases, even if they aren’t as well-funded as students might want. Although reaching the top of the waiting list for on-campus appointments can take months, there is at least the option of getting help from an off-campus therapist within two weeks of applying for counselling. There’s certainly room for improvement, but it is still better for students to have their mental health in the hands of qualified therapists rather than even the best-intentioned students.

While societies are a huge part of college life for many UCD students, they are not necessarily the best structure for addressing complex issues such as mental health. Societies exist as an outlet for students to pursue their extra-curricular passions and make like-minded friends, not to provide essential services. There are thousands of UCD students that don’t engage with societies at all, and many see societies as cliquey or inviting only to a certain type of student. The existing mental health services, even if they are not as expansive as we would like, are better suited for providing impartial support to students regardless of whether they are comfortable in a society setting.

In addition, the funding allocated to societies is mostly proportional to the number of students that pay €2 for membership. Signing up to a society also involves handing over identifiable information, often in a public setting such as in the Fresher’s Tent or at a society event. This would likely serve as an obstacle for students who would prefer to maintain their anonymity due to the still-present stigma around mental health.

Overall, setting up a mental health society in the most effective way would be a huge and complex undertaking, and the benefits over the status quo are not enough to justify this.

Rebuttal by Nathan Young

Ethical dilemmas around issues of anonymity and confidentiality are, of course, hugelyimportant to anyone seeking to provide mental health care, and are to be treated with the utmost seriousness by professionals and organisations providing such care. Meanwhile, individuals and organisations not claiming to provide healthcare cannot be held to such a high standard. The situation of a committee member having personal information disclosed to them by a member of their society already occurs. The difference is that under the status quo, the Societies Council can pretend that it’s nothing to do with them, and no one ever actually needs any training that could be useful in this situation.

On the point of the Union and other organisations on campus already existing to fight stigma around mental health, it must be remembered that the Union has already offered support for the founding of a mental health society, and that having another organisation operating under a different structure fighting for the same goals seems beneficial to the pre-existing ones. Also, though the MHWS is not planning on being a peer lead healthcare service, if it came up, surely they could answer all of the above criticisms the same way as PleaseTalk and Niteline do, both of which are student led and excellent services.

While most of the reasons given to defend the decision are thinly veiled excuses for the Societies Council to pretend mental health isn’t and could never be their responsibility. There are plenty of reasons to set up a mental health society, and those trying to do it have already done all the same paperwork that anyone else trying to set up a society would have to do.

Rebuttal by Melanie Kelly

It is interesting that the other side brings up last year’s report on the mishandling of sexual harassment allegations by the Societies Council. While this has been used to support a Mental Health Society, I would see it as evidence that the society system in UCD is not equipped to protect students at vulnerable times. Clearly, the Council did not prioritise student welfare when they failed to bring in the recommended Auditor training. Giving additional responsibility to an organisation that has already proven its incompetence is surely not the best solution for anyone involved.

The other side also raised the point that there are societies that deal with SU-mandated issues. However, mental health is different from, say, LGBTQ+ rights, in that the well-being or even the life of a student could be put at risk if a sensitive situation is mishandled. Even though the Mental Health and Wellbeing Society would not have had the aim of providing mental health care, the fact that its committee would have received SafeTalk and ASIST training shows that they anticipated students coming to them with problems. Given the Societies Council’s bad track record, plus the fact that even the most dedicated committee member wouldn’t have the skill set of a qualified psychologist, a society is definitely not the best port of call for a student in need.

The society system simply isn’t designed to provide real support to students who are struggling with their mental health. UCD has services dedicated to that purpose, and it would be a much more efficient use of students’ time and effort to add to these existing supports rather than trying to set up a new group with limited scope. Participating in PleaseTalk events, fundraising for NiteLine or campaigning for better on-campus counselling with UCDSU are all impactful options that don’t require the formation of a formal society.