Top psychiatrist voices caution over student mental health study

 Pictured at the launch of the USI mental health study was Ruairi Weiner from Maynooth University, Minister for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor, USI president Lorna Fitzpatrick, Lillian Searson from Institute of Art, Design and Technology and Sorcha Murphy from Dublin City University. Photograph: Conor McCabe Photography

A leading psychiatrist has warned against drawing definitive conclusions from a survey of students in which a third of respondents said they had a formal diagnosis of a mental health difficulty at some point in their lives.

Brendan Kelly, professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin, said the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) study, published on Tuesday, “highlights the issue of student mental health, which is incredibly important and often neglected”.

But he said the low response rate of less than 1 per cent of third-level students “limit[s] the fine-grained conclusions that can be drawn”.

The report was based on responses to an online survey from 3,340 students enrolled in third-level education, 74 per cent of which were female. Diagnoses of mental illness were self-reported by participants.

“People with mental health problems are more likely to respond to the survey compared to people who do not identify as having such problems,” said Prof Kelly.

“As a result, more work is needed if we are to get reliable estimates of how common mental health problems are in this population.”

The report, part funded by the HSE, was launched by Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor who said the report would be “hugely valuable to all of us informing future policy”.

She said the relatively high female response rate was “consistent with the continuing reluctance of men to discuss their mental health”.

Among the main findings in the report are that students are experiencing extremely severe levels of anxiety (38.4 per cent), depression (29.9 per cent) and stress (17.3 per cent).

“We sent out the link to the survey through the local students unions, and we had no control over who would respond,” said Aoife Price, USI mental health project manager and a co-author of the report. Responses saw over-representation of particular groups in comparison with the general population, such as those identifying as female or part of the LGBQT+ community.

“This probably coincides with those students being maybe more open to talking about their mental health difficulty,” said Ms Price.

“This research proves that there is a high level of clinical need across the student population,” Ms Price added.

Clive Byrne, director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, said the “findings reinforce the need for improved access to mental health services across all levels of our education system, including in our secondary schools”.


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