The number of third-level students seeking counselling at University College Cork is increasing every single year – yet those who deliver the service say it remains overstretched and underfunded.
In the academic year 2015/2016 more than 1,170 students attended the university's counselling service.
This is up from 750 in 2008/09 – an increase of 56%.
Anxiety is the most common issue presenting at the counselling service, followed by depression. After that, students present with many varied issues including family difficulties, relationship issues, bereavement, sexual assault, sexual abuse, and addiction.
Paul Moriarty, Head of Student Counselling and Development at UCC, said the increase can be attributed to a number of factors, namely that the population of UCC has increased in recent years, and that students nowadays are far more willing to seek support than they used to be.
“It is normal that a certain percentage of any population would have mental health challenges. It is also normal that the percentage in a third-level setting would be higher – given that mental health difficulties peak during late teen and early adult years,” explained Mr Moriarty.
To cope with the increased demand on services, UCC has responded by increasing the budget for extra counselling provision. Extra resources have also been given for extra psychiatry provision and for UCC's Peer Support programme.
Despite these welcome measures, current demand is still far greater than the resources they have available to meet it, according to Mr Moriarty.
He said that “a serious conversation” needs to take place between third-level mental health services and the Health Service Executive.
“The conversation that is required has to have the student at the centre, and what is best for him or for her. How best to fund this can be an integral part of this discussion... this will ensure continuity of care beyond term time and beyond college when necessary,” said Mr Moriarty.
“Some recent 'gentle' collaborations, for example State of Mind Ireland which promotes mental fitness through sport and activity, between Student Counselling and Development, UCC and the HSE show that there is an openness to further more meaningful collaborations going forward.” But as the stigma surrounding mental health issues continues to decrease, probably as a result of high-profile information and awareness campaigns, the numbers presenting to counselling services at third-level are only going to increase.
“Research shows that third-level students are more likely to experience mental distress than their peers in other settings. Many things may contribute to this – transition to university from school, leaving home, adapting to a new form of learning, making new friends, being required to give presentations, meet deadlines, and perform in examinations,” said Mr Moriarty.
“In addition, young students may struggle with negotiating the life-stage transition to early adulthood – from dependence to independence – particularly in a setting where they have much more freedom than they are used to. More mature students may struggle to balance study, work, and home life, while international students may struggle with adapting to a new culture and being away from home.” Once a student experiencing problems attends counselling, however, feedback shows they are being successfully helped through their difficulties.
“Anonymous feedback from users of the Student Counselling Service demonstrates that 92% of clients found the service to be either effective or very effective,” said Mr Moriarty.
“In addition, of the students who responded to the question 'How important was counselling for you in remaining a student of the university?' 80% responded that counselling was an important factor. This level of satisfaction makes not only a moral argument but also an economic argument for an increase in resources for student counselling and mental health.”