High expectations can have ‘absolutely devastating’ effect on third-level students

Diana J. Smith

The huge pressure Irish young people tend to put on themselves can have an “absolutely devastating” effect on them mentally when they start college, an Oireachtas education committee has heard.

The committee met on Tuesday to continue its discussions on the future of funding third-level education, hearing from psychologists, counsellors, and mental health experts.

The decreasing stigma of mental health issues plus increased anxiety and academic pressure to do well have all been factors in the huge rise in demand for student counselling services, according to Trish Murphy of the Irish Council for Psychotherapy and a student counsellor at Trinity College Dublin. 

“Even the private sector is having huge difficulty in meeting the surging need,” she told the committee. 

When asked by Fianna Fáil TD Jim O’Callaghan if she agreed with the College of Psychiatrists in Ireland’s claim that the greatest threat to the mental health of young people is cannabis, Ms Murphy said: “I find it hard to say yes to that.” 

Cannabis “wouldn’t help” any mental health difficulties, and it would be a way that people try to cope, she added. 

“I think what I would see is people put huge pressure on themselves [and] ‘perfectionism’. The idea that ‘I have to be the best I can be’ across a whole range of things. 

I think our young people put huge pressure on themselves. I think their parents’ expectations are very high.

“When they come to college and find that they’re not head of class like they used to be the effect on them over years can be absolutely devastating.” 

Last year, the College of Psychiatrists in Ireland said there had been a 300% increase in cannabis-related diagnoses in admissions to hospitals between 2005 and 2017.

There is a “really strong evidence base that people who are experiencing mental health difficulties will self-medicate with substances”, said Joseph Morning, mental health content editor with SpunOut.ie. “To purely address the substance isn’t getting to the root of the issue.”

There is also a “significant shortfall” in the number of psychologists being trained at third level to meet the demand for mental health services, according to Mark Smyth, the past president of the Irish Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI). Demand for support significantly increased as a direct result of the pandemic and is likely to continue to do so, he said.

Successive Government reports have identified the shortfall, with a 2021 HSE report estimating an additional 321 psychologists are required to meet demand alone, he added.  “This doesn’t take into account demand in other areas such as education and higher education.” 

Plans to increase the number of training places and associated funding have yet to be addressed.

“Each year of delay to additional funding being allocated to third-level psychology training programs will add another three years to when they qualify and enter the workforce.” 

In 2021, there were 66 HSE-funded clinical psychology places in universities. “This is not enough to meet current or future demand.”

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