Since coming into office, I have received many representations from across the country regarding the health and well-being of our students. Some of those representations have student mental health as the primary topic, while many others express concerns regarding the subject together with other matters. My Department would require to undertake further analysis to answer the Deputy’s query therefore or perhaps the Deputy could provide some more specific information as to the correspondence he is referencing.
The support and wellbeing of our students is one of my priorities, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the increased stress and pressure resulting from it.
In 2020, I secured a comprehensive package of financial support in the amount of €168m for the Higher Education and Further Education and Training sector to mitigate against the direct financial impact of COVID-19 on our Universities, institutions, colleges and students in 2020. This package includes additional funding of €3m to underpin wellbeing and mental health and student services in our higher education institutions (HEIs), and is in addition to the €2m that was allocated in Budget 2020. This funding is enabling institutions to enhance their student facing services, such as by employing additional student Counsellors and Assistant Psychologists.
The HEA wrote to all HEIs in 2020 setting each institutions funding allocation towards student support and mental health and wellbeing and the conditions attaching to the funding, including a request that the HEIs distribute it in support of specific student facing areas such as the recruitment of additional Student Counsellors, and implementation of the National Student Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Framework, which I launched last year.
This Framework is Ireland’s first ever national approach to address student mental health and suicide prevention. The Framework delivers on a commitment to develop national guidelines for the higher education institutions (HEIs) in relation to suicide risk and critical incident response, thereby helping to address any gaps which might exist in the prevention of suicide in higher education. The Framework additionally recognises the many challenges students face, and sets out ways in which institutions can support and respond through working proactively to maximise mental health and wellbeing.
The Framework provides very clear guidance to higher education institutions regarding implementation of good practices in responding to student mental health difficulties. The HEA has partnered with the HSE National Office for Suicide Prevention and Psychological Counsellors in Higher Education Ireland (PCHEI) in providing training in a specialist suicide assessment and management approach. Over 300 psychologists and counsellors across 26 higher education institutions are currently undertaking Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality training, a first in world at this scale across a sector. The CAMS approach is supported by over 70 studies and given the origins of its development was a university mental health setting, it fits well in a higher education context. This is further support for student counselling services to meet the complex and challenging needs that present on campuses at an increasing rate in the past number of years. This also addresses Goal 5 in the Department of Health’s Connecting for Life – Ireland’s National Strategy to Reduce Suicide 2015-2020: "To ensure safe and high-quality services for people vulnerable to suicide." Together with the crisis text line 50808 that I launched in October 2020, I'm confident that capacity to respond to students experiencing high distress and mental health difficulties has been significantly improved over the past 6 months.
Funding has also helped develop the student counselling services across the Higher Education sector in many ways besides student counsellor resourcing. For example, some institutions have developed new roles of Assistant Psychologist, Student Support Officer and Mental Health Advisors for student mental health supports. Heads of Services have been appointed or further resourced.
I am very encouraged that the Framework and the additional funding has had immediate impact. The increased capacity has created a lot of activity in outreach to students: online support groups (anxiety support, mood management); open, drop in groups to support connection/reduce isolation and loneliness; groups specifically targeting international students, first year students and postgraduates. The additional funding has also supported a very significant increase in workshops being offered such as on resilience; managing fear/anxiety/uncertainty; grief and loss during the pandemic; motivation/staying engaged with college.