'I've been there': Why it's no surprise Irish college students have depression and anxiety

I struggled a lot with my mental health when I was a student in UCD – so much so that I eventually dropped out. A new report by the Union of Students in Ireland shows many other college students are in the same boat. Here is my experience and where to go for advice


I’m not surprised almost a third of college students in Ireland are depressed; nor am I shocked that almost 40% of them have severe anxiety. I’ve been there. I was one of them.

While everyone’s mental health journey is different, the issues leading to my struggles aren’t unusual; quite the opposite. I’ll run through my experience here, and if you are a college student and/or can relate to any of this, trust me when I say it can – and will – get better.

The statistics

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A new report by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) has found Irish college students are struggling with their mental health. The National Report on Student Mental Health in Third Level Education, which was funded by the HSE, surveyed 3,340 students.

It found 38.4% of those surveyed are experiencing extremely severe levels of anxiety; 29.9% feel depressed, while 32.2% have already received a formal diagnosis of mental health difficulties at some point in their lives.

One out of every five students said they don't have someone to talk to about their personal and emotional difficulties. What's more, of the 20% who sought help from the college counselling service, waiting times varied between one and eight weeks.

Speaking about these findings on RTÉ Radio One’s Morning Ireland, USI vice-president for welfare Roisin O'Donovan said, "They're quite shocking and they're quite sad figures I think as well, because obviously behind each and every one of those statistics it's a student".

A student such as me.

My experience

When I finished secondary school, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with my life. I felt a societal pressure to attend college, but when it came to choosing a course, I wasn't sure.

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I settled on English Literature in UCD, mainly because I enjoyed English at Leaving Cert level and thought it best to stick with what I know. This decision led to a heap of problems for me.

Firstly, English at college level is nothing like secondary school. The course was nothing like I had anticipated; I hated my lectures and I found my readings impossible to keep up with (and that's coming from someone who loves to read).

"I was too embarrassed to admit I was struggling, particularly when my classmates seemed to be managing perfectly fine."

On top of that, I was commuting for four hours a day. Two hours over, two hours back. Each morning, I'd leave home before sunrise and wouldn't get back until way after nightfall. Both literally and metaphorically, my life was shrouded in darkness.

It was lonely. Really lonely.

After two years of this routine, while also working part-time in retail and trying to maintain some quality of social life, I was diagnosed with mild depression and severe anxiety.

Yet, for a variety of reasons, the diagnosis (and subsequent help) didn't come for a long time.

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Grace McGettigan

Why I struggled for so long

I felt a mixture of embarrassment, shame and guilt.

I was too embarrassed to admit I was struggling, particularly when my classmates seemed to be managing perfectly fine. I was ashamed of myself for 'not being good enough' to handle the pressure that came with third-level education, and I felt guilty that I'd let myself (and my family) down.

Still, in 2012, it all came to a head. During what can only be described as a breakdown, I realised I couldn't do it anymore. My family helped me through it; reminding me that my mental health and emotional wellbeing were more important than any degree.

I made an appointment with my Programme Office and applied for a Leave of Absence. Shortly after, I withdrew from the college course completely. I was done.

Where to get help

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My next port of call was my GP, who on some level, was aware of my mental health struggles. She referred me to a counsellor, prescribed medication, and recommended I attend a CBT course (more specifically, this one which is run in various locations across the country by Aware).

Each of these three things helped me in different ways; one or two alone wouldn't have been enough. What I'm trying to say is, even if you feel like you've tried everything, there's always another option out there.

"Yes, I still have anxiety, but I'm in control of it now. It doesn't control me."

One thing I wish I had made use of (though I didn't realise it was an option at the time), is the college's own counselling service. I can't stress enough how beneficial it is to get things off your chest; particularly to an impartial, non-judgmental professional.

I have luckily come through the other side.

Yes, I still have anxiety, but I'm in control of it now. It doesn't control me, which is something I never thought I'd say.

It's upsetting to see so many students suffering the way I did. I hope they know it's okay; that it's normal to feel overwhelmed by it all. But more than anything, I hope they seek help.

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Speaking from experience, it's so important, and it's so worth it.

For information or advice, contact your GP, college health service, Students' Union or visit aware.iesamaritans.org or mymind.org.

Photos: Grace McGettigan


Read more: How to deal with an anxious child at back-to-school time

Read more: How to gain control over panic attacks

Read more: This simple thing helped me get a handle on my anxiety

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