Urgent action is needed to tackle the growing numbers of students with mental health difficulties, says a new report.

With 354,000 students in higher education across the island of Ireland, the level of available services have not been matched to the increasing number of students accessing them, according to the report.

While one third of 18-19-year-olds experience mental health difficulties, fewer than one in four students seek support, it finds.

The report identifies third-level assessment methods like oral presentations and absenteeism among students as challenges to those experiencing difficulties.

While the concerns raised by students are very serious, an overhaul of the entire system is not required, states the report from the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability (Ahead) and the National Learning Network, a division of the Rehab Group.

“These systems can be easily changed and adapted to ensure that students struggling with mental health can reach their full potential,” said Rehab chief executive Mo Flynn.

Twenty-two higher-level educational institutions took part in the report.

Oral presentations were identified as very challenging when dealing with a mental illness, as they can cause students intense anxiety. One student described being left as a “nervous wreck” after delivering her presentation.

The use of less stressful assessment methods such as one-on-one presentations can make the difference between a student failing and dropping out, it finds.

A student’s absenteeism when suffering with a mental health difficulty is another struggle.

While varying responses from different colleges were recorded, 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, finds the report.

To combat this, the report recommends a review of teaching and learning practices. Disability awareness training is provided on a voluntary basis for academic staff, but it says this training should be mandatory for all full- and part-time staff.

Education Minister Richard Bruton said: “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.”

Ahead executive director Ann Heelan said 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,” he said.

“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.”

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