Students’ mental health: problems, policy and politics

The sensitive issue of mental well-being amongst Trinity students — and amongst younger people in Ireland — has once again returned to the fore, after a summer that saw two tragic events in particular highlight the need for a raised awareness of mental health concerns.
On August 20th, a funeral was held in Dalkey for Shane Clancy, a Trinity student who had carried out a fatal stabbing attack the previous Sunday, killing 22-year-old Sebastian Creane and seriously injuring two others, before committing suicide. The two injured consisted of the victim’s brother, Dylan Creane, and Jennifer Hannigan, a student at the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology.

The central motive, according to Gardai reports of the time, lay in the fact that Mr Creane was beginning a relationship with Ms Hanningan, who was Mr Clancy’s ex-girlfriend.

As can be imagined, the episode provoked huge publicity, but the critical problem of depression, from which (according to some sources) Mr Clancy suffered, has been rarely addressed in the commentary afterwards. Likewise, the more recent death of 27-year-old Irish Olympic Boxer Dan Sutherland, who was found hanged in his London flat last Monday, has seen little mention made of wider mental health concerns — this despite the fact that Mr Sutherland’s mental health was cited as a significant factor by his family and friends.

However, a response is being formed in some quarters, specifically by one group most relevant to Trinity students — namely College authorities. In a measure of the growing significance of the issue, a specific student’s mental health was on the agenda for the meeting last Wednesday of one of the most important committees in College, the University’s Board, chaired by the Provost. Cormac Cashman, the Student Union’s Welfare Officer, was at the meeting, and was asked by Trinity News about what was discussed. While he noted that he couldn’t discuss an individual’s circumstance for reasons of confidentiality, he admitted that the SU is handling ‘rising cases of students facing mental health difficulties’, and called it a ‘massive issue’.  He was anxious to point out that students have access to a range support networks, including the counselling and health service, which is free to students, along with Niteline, Student to Student, College Tutors and of course the SU Welfare Officer. 

While these services are undoubtedly helpful, they are essentially passive – the affected student has to take it upon his/herself to seek help. This is clearly often a mightily difficult step, and regularly involves close friends and family. As psychotherapists point out, it is therefore up to everyone to be more aware of the potential issues of mental health, in order that individuals who need counselling are spotted quicker and helped sooner.

This kind of mental healthcare advice, doled out by professional psychotherapists and student bodies alike, may seem obvious – and it is   — but it is equally questionable whether it is really taken on board and acted upon, given the recent evidence. There certainly exists a cultural reluctance to engage with the challenging and complex questions that cases of mental health problems present.

More unhelpful still is when mental health is itself turned into a political football. The Union of Students in Ireland reacted last week to a report published by University College Dublin’s Geary Institute, which linked an increase in psychological problems amongst Irish students to a rise in financial difficulties. The USI President, Peter Mannion, commented that the ‘shocking report’ revealed a ‘flawed student grants system’ that is ‘very obviously failing students’, before going on to attack the government’s proposals to re-introduce tuition fees in light of the findings. In a summing up, the USI warned ‘that if Minister O’ Keefe’s proposals to re-introduce Third Level fees are realised, the psychological well-being of students around Ireland will suffer even further.’

As a sensible justification for maintaining the ‘no-fees’ status quo, the USI comments are ill-considered, at the very least, but are a classic example of the kind of heightened emotions that the issue of mental health generates. And as will be pointed out, it also shows the way the whole question of mental health is easily manipulated: both by those who sideline it as an issue, and those that see it as one of the major healthcare challenges today.

In this instance, (and at the risk of sounding like a government spokesman) it is worth pointing out that it is the job of healthcare professionals to treat and resolve psychological problems, not the Ministry of Education by proxy, by keeping the prospect of fees at bay. The essential problem remains: that each psychological case is different, experienced in a specific way by a single individual, rendering it essentially subjective.     

This characteristic, if we multiply it to the level of the group, creates the potential for sweeping descriptions of situations to be made- like the one made by the USI- and can likewise form the basis for acrimonious debate. This, given the nature and sensitivity of mental health, should surely be avoided wherever possible.

If we look at the Geary Institute’s report, its results are hardly surprising, given the current economic situation, and students are affected by the downturn along with everyone else. If the government, through it’s own mismanagement or otherwise, is forced to make public sector cuts, then its seems reasonable to accept that these cuts will target a list of sectors of society that are the least vulnerable, and students, unfortunately, are on that list. It sounds depressing, but viewed in the cold light of day, students have got the whole of their working lives to pay off the most likely form of fee, a student loan. What’s harmful is that the USI, in trying to respond to this argument -that grows in strength as the harsh reality of empty State coffers is revealed- draws upon an area, mental health, that already suffers from exposure in wrong contexts.

Thus many will scoff at the idea of large numbers of Irish students suffering particularly severe psychological trauma due to financial strain. A person with a mortgage to pay, or with a business that is stymied by a lack of available credit, could also easily claim – and with perhaps more weight – that they are experiencing mental health difficulties, and therefore be given assistance by the government.

The upshot? In the debate, the worth of mental health symptoms are steadily eroded. In the end, both the credibility of mental health as a critically important sector of the health system and the USI ‘no-fees’ campaign are damaged. The real failures of awareness that led to the deaths of both Mr Clancy and Mr Sutherland are overshadowed. And while generalisations abound when discussing groups, significantly, for individual cases, a mental health ‘difficulty’ becomes a reductionist ‘reason’ for certain events or behaviours: a remote ‘cause’ that (it is implicitly implied) can never be understood or properly addressed. This kind of attitude is blinkered and potentially extremely harmful. It is clear that in addressing mental health, the very basic starting point is to engage with the problem, both specifically and more generally as a means of dealing with a damaging cultural stigma in our society. 

As Trinity students prepare for the start of a new academic year, everyone will be experiencing different emotions. For those returning, perhaps an upbeat sense of seeing college-based friends again is mixed (for the rising sophister years at least) with the grim realisation that the work now counts. For the freshers, the excitement at starting college might well be tempered by some nervousness, with new surroundings and new people to contend with. But with the deaths of Mr Clancy and Mr Sutherland, we have been reminded that emotions and mental well being are vital areas of our health, that need to be looked after with care.