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New Measures Needed To Support Students With Mental Health Difficulties In Third Level

01 November 2016

• Action needed to tackle increasing number of students experiencing mental health difficulties
• Full and part-time College staff should have mandatory mental health awareness training
• Use Oral Presentations as a method of assessment needs to be reviewed – students say they make them “a nervous wreck”

Minister Richard Bruton has today launched the report Mental Health Matters – Mapping Best Practices in Higher Education.

AHEAD, the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability and the National Learning Network (NLN), a division of the Rehab Group, has produced this report following new research undertaken in this area.

The report has identified 12 recommendations to help students with mental health difficulties in third level education.

The ‘Mental Health Matters – Mapping Best Practices in Higher Education’ report was carried out to give a voice to students with mental health difficulties and to hear the experiences of professional staff in third level education. 22 Higher Education Institutions participated in the report.

Two of the key points include:

Assessment methods

Students with mental health difficulties revealed that oral presentations are very challenging, causing intense anxiety and resulting in students describing themselves as a ‘nervous wreck’. The openness to trying out new methods, such as one-on-one presentations or recording themselves at home, has been welcomed by students. Students agreed these assessment methods are less stressful and help them to fully demonstrate their knowledge. Openness to flexible assessment methods can make the difference between a student reaching their potential or failing and dropping out. Although colleges provide disability awareness training for academic staff, it is on a voluntary basis. This report recommends that awareness training should be made mandatory for full and part-time staff.

Absenteeism support

Time out of college can be a regular experience for students struggling with mental health difficulties. The report found varying responses from colleges to students who were not able to attend lectures and who seek support to catch up. Unreliable access to online lecture notes, the need for additional time, and a lack of understanding of reasons for absenteeism among staff are key issues for students.

One student felt that audio versions of lecture notes would have been beneficial, but that there is a lack of acknowledgment that students with mental health difficulties need this kind of support. A review of the current teaching and learning practices should take place to ensure that institutions are thinking creatively about the learning environment and what will work for individual students.

Launching the report, Richard Bruton TD, Minister for Education and Skills, said: “I welcome this new and informative research by the National Learning Network and AHEAD. It is essential that we listen to the experiences of students and hear their voices in order to improve how we tackle mental health difficulties in our colleges.”

Speaking about the report, Mo Flynn, Chief Executive of Rehab Group said: “This wide ranging report lays bare the difficult challenges that people with mental health difficulties face in third level education. The concerns raised by students around assessment methods and absenteeism supports are very serious, but they do not require a major overhaul of the system. They can be easily changed and adapted to ensure that students struggling with mental health can reach their full potential.”

Ann Heelan, AHEAD Executive Director, said: “People working in third level believe that good mental health is a key factor for students succeeding. This report highlights new ways that are emerging to promote good mental health and to support students struggling with anxiety, stress or psychological difficulties. Students struggling with anxiety often hide it and don’t look for help. Yet we know that the right supports at the right time really help students to cope. While the increasing number of students seeking help suggests there is less stigma round the issue, it also puts more pressure on stressed services. Mental health difficulties are a real issue in colleges and it makes sense to acknowledge and address it head on'.


For additional information, please contact:
Martin Grant – M: 0877118225 /
Ann Heelan - M: 087 2627805 /


Key recommendations to provide support for students with mental health difficulties in higher education:

  1. Incorporate flexibility into assessment methods
  2. One to one tailored specialised support to meet individual students’ needs
  3. Address gap in training for part time/adjunct staff
  4. Training for all academic staff in supporting students with mental health needs
  5. Formalise peer support initiatives
  6. Include mental health in induction for all students and staff
  7. Developing a map of interlinked support services
  8. Establish dedicated/specialised mental health service or champion
  9. Allocate funding to ensure equity of early access
  10. Whole campus strategic response to students with mental health difficulties
  11. HEA and HSE: A coordinated multi-agency approach
  12. Linking in with AHEAD’s Universal Design for Learning (UDL) work

There are 354,000 students in higher education in colleges in the Republic and Northern Ireland. However, the increasing number of students with mental health difficulties and their needs has not been matched by more services.

In 2013/14, 9,694 students with disabilities were studying in 27 institutions in Ireland, a 7% rise from 2012/2013. Students with disabilities now make up 4.7% of the student population in 27 institutions.

In Ireland one in four people experience mental health difficulties.

One third of young people aged between 18 and 19 experience mental health difficulties.

While the struggle with mental health problems is increasing, less than one in four students seeks support.

Times of transition such as moving away from home and going to college are known to trigger stress which may lead to reduced mental health wellbeing.

Mental Health Matters Report