Mary Mitchell O’Connor sets up task force to deal with drug abuse in third-level

The Minister for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor has organized a task force and commissioned a study to address the problem of drug abuse among third-level students.

Minister for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor has set up a Rapid Response Group to address the issue of drug abuse among college students. The group involves “a group of experts, including academics, gardaí, students and first responders within institutions, who are going to consider what the key issues that are facing us are, and what the solutions will be,” she said. She aims to “thrash” out an implementable plan alongside the gardaí while considering the differing views of the expert group she put together.

The Rapid Response Group is to be chaired by Dr. Andrew Power of the Institute of Art Design and Technology. It also includes Assistant Commissioner for Special Crime Operations John O’Driscoll, Assistant Commissioner for Special Crime Operations, and Assistant Commissioner for Community Engagement and Public Safety Orla McPartlin. There are 19 members altogether.

As well as setting up a task force, the Higher Education Minister is also seeking “a clear and accurate account as to what we are dealing with” and said that current statistics on drug use among students are “anecdotal.” To paint a fuller picture of student’s habitual and recreational drug use, Dr. Michael Bryne, head of student health department in University College Cork and also a member of the response group, is tasked to collect data from third level institutions. Third level institutions will be invited to carry out the survey on their students. Students will be questioned on what substances they use, why they use it, and if they abstain from any use, why they abstain. The study will also focus on students who tried to obtain help through their institute’s counselling services, and on occurrences on college campuses.

He believes that it’s “important to build on the number of students who don’t take a substance and have actively decided not to, so we might have some interventions for that group so they never proceed to take it”.

In an interview with the Irish Independent, Mary Mitchell O’Connor said that: “We have an issue around substance abuse in Irish colleges” and that “it really concerns [her].” She added that “you don't expect in a higher education institution that there would be drugs freely available, but I have heard about drugs being sold within colleges” She also had an “eye-opening” meeting in June with college stakeholders including the leaders of the Union of Students in Ireland. “There is a laissez faire attitude to this issue in colleges but I am going to show leadership on this,” she said.

The Higher Education Minister acknowledges that there is work already done by third-level institutions, but “we were not doing enough in a planned and joined-up way across the sector to counteract the negative impact of drug and substance abuse”. She hopes that the joint forces of the task force and the study will “give us the opportunity to build a sustainable strategy on how we message our young students around drug taking”. She also adds that “The messaging is important, but it is also critical that we work in partnership with institutions and groups to ensure the success of the final action plan.”

Mary Mitchell O’Connor has been prompted to take action after parents have asked her to tackle the issue and witnessing the consequences first hand. In an interview with the Irish Independent she said: “The last funeral I was at, I walked toward them to sympathise with them and the father and mother asked me to do something about the issue. Another mother wrote to me from Tipperary and said they wouldn't want anyone else to die.” “Some students are suffering serious harm. Some are dying and lives are shattered. We all have a responsibility to protect and educate students and parents”.

The move to organize a task force comes after the recent deaths of John Ryan, NUI Galway student, who died after ingesting an illegal substance at a house in Limerick and Jack Downey, a Cork Institute of Technology student, who lost his life after taking either ecstasy or MDMA at the Indiependence music festival in Mitchelstown.

She wants the initiative to also hammer home the role of the “responsible” bystander. She has encouraged to “always ‘step in’ when there is any indication that a friend or fellow student is at risk after consuming drugs by calling the emergency services.” She also said that: “The messaging is important, but it is also critical that we work in partnership with institutions and groups to ensure the success of the final action plan.”

“It is my intention that this response will be embedded within the Healthy Ireland Healthy Campus initiative which is being rolled out within all our higher education institutions by the Department of Health later this year.”