UCD Residences Under Fire Over Lack of Adequate Mental Health Facilities

  • RAs concerned over lack of out-of-hours support for students in UCD Residences
  • 3 RAs and 1 SRA have already quit their roles this year
  • Some SRAs unhappy with level of training provided to handle mental health issues

The lack of adequate mental health facilities and out-of-hours supports for students living on campus has been criticised as a major growing concern by numerous Residential Assistants (RAs) who spoke to the Tribune. These sources have illuminated a system whereby between the hours of 6pm and 8am the RAs and Senior Residential Assistant (SRAs) are in effect the final decision makers regarding the mental wellbeing of students in Residences, with no mental health professionals on call and the front of house staff described as ‘not adequately trained to support [RAs]’ and not found to be helpful. The best assistance that RA’s are able to contact in the course of the night is the Campus Services Duty Manager whose training is only as advanced as that of SRAs.

A number of the RA’s who spoke to the Tribune highlighted that they while they did receive various forms of training to address student mental health issues such as Safetalk and ASSIST, this was not comparable to having a professional counsellor available out of hours. RAs have described stories of dealing with students who were suicidal, in the mists of panic or anxiety attacks, or even being attacked by residents.

Despite these instances being reported by RAs and requests made for additional resources to address these problems, no services have been made available. There is a sense among the RAs that there are no changes being made despite promises made 4 years ago when a resident took their own life. The options RAs and staff have are limited. They can either refer residents to Student Advisors or ask them to attend UCD counselling services, both of which are not available after 5pm or during the Christmas break.

RAs themselves are not assessed for mental health issues, despite the fact that they are frequently required to work with and look after students who are experiencing serious mental health issues. This has in the past resulted in RAs who are struggling with mental health issues being responsible for students who are also struggling. Compounding this situation is the fact that UCD Counselling services are currently overbooked to the extent that many students won’t be seen till late into this semester, as reported by the University Observer, with no signs that this demand for services is slowing. 

A further concern of RAs who spoke to the Tribune is the lack of training that replacement RAs or SRAs are given, despite high turnover in the roles. So far this year 3 RA’s and 1 SRA have quit their roles, and it remains unclear if their replacements have been given the complete training required by the role. RAs who spoke the Tribune expected more RAs to resign as the year goes on. This would require UCD to identify replacement RAs and have them undergo training in a short space of time. In the past there have been cases where new RAs brought in part of the way into the year do not undergo training and are simply put in rotation.

A  2017 report shows that last year only 50% of SRAs who started the year remained by the end, and that their replacements had not undergone Occupational First Aid training, something that was normally a requirement for SRAs.

This problem with training has been exacerbated this year as a result of the unprecedented increase in the number of RAs, which has nearly doubled from last year. SRAs present at the training said that the attempt to bring such large numbers in was poorly thought out, and reduced the overall effectiveness of the training. The poor format of training was also highlighted with many RAs being given Safetalk suicide prevention training before hearing their job description from SRAs. This resulted in a number of RAs wanting to quit before they had even completed training.

Procedure

Currently the procedure for addressing students with in mental health crisis outside between 6pm and 8am is for a RA to contact an SRA who will attempt to address the situation. If the SRA feels they are unable to adequately deal with the issue, then they can contact the Front of House staff in Merville or UCD Campus Services, who will in practice arrange for an ambulance.

This system was criticized by SRAs in a meeting with UCD Students’ Union (UCDSU) last year as the Front of House staff were described as ‘not adequately trained to support’, and Campus Services were described as ‘not taking responsibility’, and that they ‘frequently called RAs to ask about security [and to] flag issues with residents’ as opposed to addressing them themselves. This was in part believed to be the result of a high turnover in the Front of House staff and the fact that there is no clear divide between the roles of RAs and the Front of House staff.

Furthermore, it was highlighted by RAs that calling an ambulance to a situation where a student was in mental distress was not always the answer, despite the fact that this is a common action taken by Campus Services. While they agreed that in certain cases this was appropriate due to the fact that students may have been at risk to themselves or others, RAs stressed it was not suitable in all cases. They believe the vast majority of serious cases could be adequately addressed through the intervention of a professional counsellor on campus, without the difficulties of convincing a student to get into the ambulance and attend A&E. This was viewed as especially important as it is possible for individuals to refuse to attend A&E if upon the arrival of an ambulance the emergency services do not believe they represent a significant risk to themselves or others.

Recommendations

Following comments made by former SRA Dylan Quinn McMahon at the 2017 UCDSU Presidential Hustings, a meeting was arranged between SRAs and UCDSU. After this meeting a submission was made by UCDSU to the UCD Residences Review Working Group, which was in turn to report to the UCD Governing Authority about any necessary changes to be made to the running of UCD Residences. This submission, which was obtained by the Tribune, outlines the issues that RAs and SRAs have been facing alongside the suggestions that the SU and RAs put forward to improve the situation for them and students staying in residences.

UCDSU suggested that UCD change its out of hours policy for addressing mental health difficulties, including the provision of a hotline or on call professional for both the residents and RAs in UCD Residencies. It called for better training for the Front of House staff in UCD Residences to ensure that RAs were more effectively supported in their duties. It also requested for a seat to made available for RAs on the Residences Review and any other relevant groups and boards, ideally with this seat to be taken up by a Senior RA.

Management

Several RAs highlighted management issues as a possible reason that the situation in Residences has been allowed to continue as long as it has. A number of RAs who spoke to the Tribune said that while that their immediate managers were sympathetic to the issues faced by residents and RA’s, they seemed unable to affect change in overall UCD. Overall Manager for UCD Residences, Richard Brierley, was said to be uninvolved in the day to day operations of Residences and was believed by RAs to only appeared when there had been a serious incident.

UCDSU Welfare Officer Eoghan MacDomhnaill said in a comment to the Tribune said that UCDSU have ‘highlighted the need for a 24 hour counselling service for residences with various working groups and UCD stakeholders including the Res Review Committee and President Deeks. This has come on foot of recommendations submitted last year in which out of hours support was identified as the most essential support going forward.’ He also emphasised that he himself had advocated for the introduction of a full time counsellor for RAs with the University Management Team on numerous occasions and would continue to do so. The Tribune contacted UCD for comment on these issues at the beginning of January, but has still not received a reply at the time of going to print.


Aaron Bowman – Politics Editor

If you’ve been affected by any of the topics raised in this piece please contact:

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Pieta House 1800 247 247 or email mary@pieta.ie (suicide, self-harm)
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

 

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