Demand for the UCD Student Counselling Service has never been higher, this year 1,910 students sought out mental health services, the highest in UCD’s history. Figures released to The College Tribune show that the number of appointments that these students have attended has sky-rocketted too, from 4,822 in 2015 to 10,227 last year. 

UCD’s solution to this demand has been to rely on outsourcing mental healthcare to ‘local counselling partners’ as an occasional overflow during peak times, but this just isn’t working anymore…

What happened:

UCD students are now attending more outsourced counselling appointments than in-house appointments leading to students being turned away from the college’s ‘Local Counselling Partners’ last year. Of the 10,227 appointments attended by students last year, 5,200 were conducted by local counselling partners. A whopping 6,099 appointments were outsourced in 2020/21.

This trend shows more than just the reliance on external counselling, but also the rapid increase in demand for mental health services in UCD. In the last seven years the number of students seeking counselling appointments has increased by 192.35%, from 993 to 1,910. They’re staying within the counselling service for longer too, up from an average of 4.85 sessions per student in 2015/16 to 5.35 last year.

Despite a nearly 200% rise in the demand for counselling, the UCD Student Counselling Service has only increased its capacity for appointments by 10.3% since 2015/16. During the same period, outsourcing of counselling appointments has increased by 2263.64%.

What isn’t working:

UCD’s outsourcing of counselling was originally designed to be an overflow mechanism at the busiest points of the year, but it has now grown larger than the Student Counselling Service itself. At its peak last year, UCD outsourced 6,099 appointments. At the same time, the college has actually outsourced 21,426 appointments since the start of the 2015/16 academic year. In contrast, the Student Counselling Service has conducted 30,948 appointments during the same time.

An Irish Times investigation found that UCD has one of the longest wait times of any university in Ireland, and spent less than half as much (€880,000) as Trinity College Dublin (€1.99 million) on mental health services for students in the 2020-21 academic year despite having significantly more students.

The counselling service in UCD are stretched thin, waitlists are not due to the staff not caring or not being good at their job. Sources within the service have informed the College Tribune that throughout the last two years counsellors have shared offices and conducted appointments online to increase the service’s capacity.

Is this sustainable?

Speaking exclusively to The College Tribune, UCDSU President Molly Greenough said: “The level UCD currently relies on the external counselling providers is not sustainable, nor preferred, in the long term.”

Greenough argues that UCD’s ability to rely on outsourcing has meant the “University didn’t adequately invest time and resources into recruiting and building internal capacity, despite successive SU teams calling for a fully costed development strategy for campus mental health supports.”

“We have no control over the external providers’ capacity and thus can’t rely on it as a long term strategy. We saw this in practice last year when the counselling service was experiencing high levels of demand and students were met with unacceptable waiting times; even the external providers, who were intended to be the stop gap measure, had to turn away UCD students. We’d argue that last year was not an anomaly and that the University needs to be prepared for a continued increase in the number of students seeking mental health support in general, and specifically counselling.”

Is there anything wrong with outsourcing?

The SU argue that “it’s often more convenient for students to attend counselling on campus and internal counsellors would also have a greater understanding of other UCD-specific supports available to students, such as the extenuating circumstances policy, student advisers, financial supports, and the chaplaincy.”

“… we’ve already seen the cracks show in this approach last year when external providers had to turn away UCD students due to their own capacity limitations. The only thing we can directly control and have oversight of is our own internal service.”

Hugh Dooley – Co-Lead of Investigations