In January 2021, Jared Reilly reached out to his university for help.
“I was going through a really tough period,” says Reilly, who’s back in the United States during the summer break.
When he missed an initial Zoom session with Trinity College Dublin’s (TCD’s) counselling services, he was told the next available appointment wouldn’t be for about three weeks.
“I was like, three weeks? What are you talking about? I’m having a crisis right now, and I’m an international student,” says Reilly, who studies philosophy, political science, economics and sociology.
He eventually got an initial assessment session, but was told he had to wait another month to begin therapy, says Reilly.
Demand for TCD’s counselling services grew massively during the academic year 2021–22, with more than 2,500 students using the services between July and 23 March.
“This breaks all records for clients served in any full academic year,” said the college’s response to a Freedom of Information request filed by students.
In March 2022, the average wait time to receive an initial assessment was 10.8 working days, the response says. Some might wait less than a week, but others might end up waiting for three to four weeks, it says.
The mean wait time for a follow-up therapy session was 25.4 days, figures suggest.
Students like Reilly say they feel their efforts to raise their concerns, and demand better access to mental health supports, have been mostly ignored by university officials.
A spokesperson for TCD said its average wait time for access to follow-up therapy has declined compared to the academic year 2020–21 when it was 41.8 days.
“The decrease in wait times was largely helped by offering more group, workshops and on-line supports along with the taking on of surge-capacity at the peak time of Spring this year,” they said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Further and Higher Education said that it has granted €521,503 in funding to TCD’s mental health supports, over the past two years.
It has asked, they said, all higher education institutions to prioritise improving mental-health services through various means, including by recruiting more student counsellors and assistant psychologists.
Trinity’s reputation as an elite university makes many students feel intense pressure to excel, especially those from working-class backgrounds who feel like they don’t belong there, says Reilly.
“I’ve got a few friends who dropped out of university for that reason because they felt out of place,” said Reilly recently on a Zoom call.
A couple of his friends had told him they hide the fact that they’re Trinity-goers, he says. “If they tell their mates back home that they go to Trinity, they would be ruthlessly made fun of.”
Tertia Paterson, a philosophy student at Trinity, says the elite culture and reputation of the university get under some people’s skins, pressuring them to set unrealistic standards for themselves.
“They’re easily disappointed if they’re not attaining perfect results,” said Paterson, who’s back in the United Kingdom at the moment.
Paterson says the mental-health effect can be worse in more demanding courses.
A TCD spokesperson said students use the counselling service “roughly in proportion with the size of their faculty and course”.
Because of that, students of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM); arts, humanities and social science; and medicine made up the biggest shares of users of the service, they said.
After the death in February of student Mark Melnychuk, Paterson organiseda petition asking TCD to increase funding for its welfare services.
Many of her peers were traumatised and needed mental-health support, she says. A little over 2,000 students had signed the petition as of 14 June.
“On average, one medical student is taking their life every year,” says Paterson, who says it’s disproportionate to other courses.
(Emails sent by TCD to their peers show at least three other medical students have died in recent years, one in 2019 and two in 2020. They don’t mention how the students died.)
Paterson put up an email address on the petition, asking students to share their experiences of trying to access support. Responses poured in, she says.
One email was from a student who said that during the Christmas exams in 2021 they had lost two close family members in a short period. “One of whom I lived with and witnessed pass away,” said the email.
They got an emergency session in December, during which they were promised grief counselling from early January, it says. “It is now almost three months since this meeting,” says the email sent at the end of February.
A spokesperson for TCD said that guidelines from the International Accreditation of Counselling Services (IACS) “suggest a best-practice ratio of counsellors to enrolled students of 1 to 1,000”.
“Currently the SCS [Trinity’s Student Counselling Service] does not quite reach this benchmark, however it is a goal for the future,” the spokesperson said.
Last Saturday, László Molnárfi, a student of philosophy, political science, economics and sociology at TCD, was sitting outside Butlers Chocolate Café on Dawson Street, trying to stop sheets of paper from blowing off the table with his cup of black tea.
The sheets were Freedom of Information Act request responses and results of surveys about students’ experience in accessing mental-health services, sought and conducted by Students4Change.
Molnárfi is the chairperson of the group, which is an independent alliance of Marxist and anarchist students fighting for reform in various areas including students’ access to housing, he says.
He shows the survey responses, pointing to students’ dissatisfaction with the college’s health and mental-health services.
He sent them to the college’s provost, Linda Doyle, on 10 March 2022, an email shows. In the email, Molnárfi asks for Doyle’s “urgent help in providing resources to these valuable sources of student and staff supports”.
Molnárfi says Doyle didn’t write back.
Paterson, who’d met with college officials, including the provost, in early March, says the meeting made her feel unseen too.”There was not a sort of acknowledgement that things need to change,” she said on a Zoom call recently.
A spokesperson for TCD said it couldn’t respond to queries about Molnárfi’s and Paterson’s encounters because the queries were “too imprecise”. “We have many meetings at Trinity, many emails are received and sent,” they said.
They said that this term, three long meetings/focus groups were held with the School of Medicine, College Health Service and Psychiatry, the Student Counselling Service and student reps from all years.
“Student mental health was fully discussed, and a list of actions raised – these will be implemented in the coming months with review procedures in place,” said the spokesperson.
Paterson says a meeting that she had with TCD’s head of student counselling at the end of April did feel more fruitful. They seemed to listen with empathy and acknowledged the problem, says Paterson.
“It seemed like that she does want to make changes. She was thinking of having sort of a different structure,” says Paterson.
The Welfare Gap
On 8 June, a press release went out that TCD was back in the top 100 of the world’s universities, as decided, at least, by the QS World University Rankings.
If student well-being mattered for those rankings, Molnárfi says, TCD might not do so well.
“How come a college that has 40 days waiting times for its counselling service gets this ranking? How come a college that has no hybrid learning gets this ranking? How come a college that has academics working precariously has this ranking?” Molnárfi says.
Molnárfi says most of his peers, especially at TCD’s medical school, are afraid to speak out, worrying that if they do, they may not get a good reference from their school and ruin their career prospects.
Molnárfi sees a solution in empowering independent student unions to campaign for their peers’ rights, which he says the government hasn’t encouraged much either.
“It’s the power of the collective. If we unite, we’re no longer scared,” says Molnárfi, smiling.
If you, or somebody you know, might need help, the Samaritans suicide prevention hotline can be contacted at 116 123.