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Dear Universities, You’re About to Cause a Greater Public Health Crisis Than Covid-19 | Opinion

There were sniggers this week as Trinity reported an increase in applicants due to Normal People’s romanticism of Irish university life. Most of the Twitter mockery was justified; Marianne’s Victorian townhouse, for instance, is certainly far from your average Dublin student accommodation. But there is one aspect of Irish student life which the show really nailed on the head: Connell’s appalling mental health.

Mental health services in this country have never been adequate, and university provisions are no exception. In UCD, demand for counselling peaks in September and October to the point that it cannot accommodate all students on campus and must provide vouchers for external services. Counselling should be easily accessible and hassle-free. If depression or anxiety means you struggle to get out of bed in the morning to attend a lecture or go about your daily routine, what are the chances you will trek to another part of the city to visit an external counsellor once a week?

As colleges begin to unveil their plans for reopening in September, the importance of this daily routine is again overlooked. UL is a key culprit in this. Students were informed last week that they will attend college one-week per month in the upcoming academic year. In the WHO’s guidelines for looking after your mental health, tip #2 reads “Have a routine”. Does staying in a Travel Lodge one week per month so you can attend college count as a routine? What about living on College Road while having no physical lectures for three weeks of every month? Is that an okay routine for an 18-year-old living away from home for the first time? The email sent to students promises a “safe and healthy environment”. Yet, mental health supports or services, demand for which will inevitably increase, were not mentioned once.

UCD, although promising students that 40-60% of learning hours will be face-to-face, should expect an extraordinary surge in demand for mental health services come September. Financial worries and fewer graduate job prospects are only some of the concerns students will be faced with in the fallout from Covid-19. There should already be measures in place to deal with this excess demand. But, like the students in UL, we’ve heard nothing.

In fact, what we have heard is that in a meeting of the University Management Team in February, it was decided that it is “not economically viable” to employ additional staff for on-campus counselling in peak months. Yet, it was apparently economically viable to spend €12.4 million on a private club for staff and alumni last year. It was also economically viable to run €4.8 million over budget on the new Confucius building in 2017, and to ask for an extra €2.5 million in funding from the government. Ruairí Power, the SU Welfare Officer, has rightly acknowledged that “the University currently spends more on business class flights than it does on the counselling service.” It is an insult to every UCD student that these luxuries come before our right to seek help for depression and anxiety.

Anyone who has watched Normal People will remember that scene. It is hard to forget. Connell sits in a waiting room, fills out a form with various personal questions, and moments later he breaks down in a heart-shattering counselling session.
Now imagine this – he calls the college counselling service and they inform him there is a 3-month waiting list. They offer him vouchers for an external service which also has a long waitlist and is probably not experiences in dealing with student-specific issues. “Why should I bother?”, he thinks, and gives up. This is the sad reality for many Irish university students.

Unlike Marianne’s lavish student house, mental health services are not a luxury or a privilege. Mental health services are health services. If this year has taught us one thing it’s that the government and public institutions can borrow and spend billions on dealing with a public health crisis. It is high time that students no longer take “it’s not economically viable” for an answer.

Bláthnaid Corless – Assistant News Editor