Mental Health Coordinator responds to criticism over 392 campaign

UCD students have criticised the lead up to UCDSU’s Project 392, with one student, Laurence Childs, describing it as “desperately self-promoting, with chique posters and silent sentries in branded hoodies, but at no point has any real information on suicide statistics or prevention being offered,” in an interview with the University Observer. The campaign is a suicide awareness project, which aims to increase awareness of the number of suicides in Ireland, with the ‘392’ referring to the number of deaths by suicide in 2017, from figures released by the Central Statistics Office.

In the week prior to its launch, the campaign had members of UCDSU and the student body post images of the of the number 392 on social media platforms, posters with ‘392’ and the Students’ Union logo erected around the Belfield campus and silent demonstrations of students wearing masks and black hoodies with the number ‘392’ in large white font.

Mental Health Coordinator, Sadhbh O’Flaherty, told the University Observer that “there were multiple facets to [the project]. Every person standing [at the demonstration] was aware that we were talking about people’s lives and every person standing there was there thinking about those 392 people that we lost. That would be the most important thing about it...It was almost symbolic to an affect, in that it was a forced silence. It emulates what a lot of people fear, that there is this barrier, so the mask between them and their day-to-day life. They feel like they can’t talk and that they can’t share what’s going on inside.” However, Childs held the view that “suicide is an issue well recognised in modern Ireland and UCD, and while we can always stand to draw more attention to it, the key focus should now be on how to respond, to help others and ourselves, connect with established supports,” which he believes that the project has fallen short on, thus far.

O’Flaherty acknowledged that “with any blind awareness campaign, they’re always difficult to run, because people obviously don’t know what you’re talking about and it seems counter-intuitive to talk about a mental health topic, without talking about it. But the point of running it the way that I did, of putting out the number first, was to get it stuck in people’s heads, to get people talking about it, which it has.”

Since it’s official launch on Monday 15th April, O’Flaherty hopes that the campaign will get students thinking “why [the number of suicides] is this high? Why are we not seeing anything done about it and to start the conversation on what we could potentially do as a country to help reduce the amount of lives that we lose.” Updated posters have been circulated around campus with the contact information for Samaritans and Pieta House, who, according to O’Flaherty, “can support the person themselves experiencing the intrusive thoughts; they can support the friend or family member who is worried about them and [Pieta House] now has a grief counselling section, so they have the supports to offer all three of these groups of people.”

When students were asked how they would like to see campaigns on mental health be carried out by UCDSU in the future, one student, Odin O’Sullivan suggested “to be up front with what the campaign is not use bizarre shock-tactics...Perhaps they should lobby the university for adequate on campus counselling and mental health services.” In response to these concerns, O’Flaherty told the University Observer, “with the response that the project has gotten, I’ve been talking to Sarah [Michalek], who is our next Mental Health Coordinator about extending the campaign and using it to drive a change in how we talk about suicide and how we look at our mental health services. It’s always been students that drive change, and if we want something changed,we have to be the ones to start.” Some ideas that O’Flaherty has discussed with the incoming Mental Health Coordinator include lobbying the government for more continuity between the child and adult services, establishing a dialogue between care providers once a person transitions form the child mental health services to the adult services and increasing supports in emergency rooms for people presenting themselves with suicidal thoughts.

In Budget 2019, the government allocated €16.05 billion to the health system, of which the Health Service Executive (HSE) invested €55 million into the country’s mental health services. “The system needs help, and it’s that simple. We have a massive amount of funding that goes into our health system.” O’Flaherty stated “we’re one of the highest for funding, but we just don’t put that funding to good use. So there must be some way of changing our service so that it’s more effective for the people who need it.”

After the issue went to print, the University Observer learned that the demonstrators were asked to vacate the concourse during their Thursday demonstration.