I propose to take Questions Nos. 426 and 497 together.
My Department allocates recurrent funding to the Higher Education Authority (HEA) for direct disbursement to HEA designated higher education institutions (HEIs). The HEA allocates this funding as a block grant to the institutions. As autonomous bodies, the internal disbursement of this funding, including the funding of appropriate student services, is a matter for the individual institution.
All HEIs are required to put in place appropriate student services, which can fall under a number of headings, particularly ‘Welfare and Guidance’ which includes counselling services, health promotion, careers service, multi-faith, racial and ethnic cultural support. As such, the provision of appropriate services to students experiencing mental health issues would be included in this context. As part of their services to students, each HEI needs to consider what is most appropriate in the particular context of its own institution and students, while also considering best practice models such as peer-led support programmes and seeking to liaise with external services to the fullest extent possible. Students in HEIs can also access primary care and specialist mental health supports through their General Practitioner, and a number of institutions operate their own additional counselling service for students.
The Department of Health is currently advancing a number of e-mental health initiatives to augment this work such as the development of tele-counselling pilots with a view to national roll-out following successful evaluation. In addition, a 24-hour crisis texting service will be available to students and the general public in the near term. At present, the Health Service Executive (HSE) is also supporting mental health initiatives in the higher education sector, such as the recently launched ‘ReCharge’ mental health campaign and ‘+Connections’ mental health support. The Union of Students in Ireland also receives funding from the HSE to provide training courses in SafeTALK and ASIST. A working group has also been convened by the HEA to progress actions assigned to it under ‘Connecting for Life’, the national strategy to reduce suicide.
The National Youth Mental Health Task Force Report 2017 made a number of recommendations in this area and highlighted the good practice and innovative initiatives aimed at supporting students experiencing mental health difficulties in many institutions, as outlined in the AHEAD report Mental Health Matters. The Department of Health is developing a National Healthy Campus Framework which aims to support and recognise the work of institutions in improving the health and wellbeing of campus communities, and to generate and disseminate knowledge for promoting health and wellbeing on campus.
In relation to Budget 2020, I cannot comment, or pre-empt any decisions to be taken by Government at this stage, other than to state that funding for the higher education sector will continue to be a key focus for myself and the Department.