Every year a new executive team/ coiste gnó is elected to work at a national level within USI. Candidates are elected at the annual national congress/ comhdail by representatives of all the member organisations across the country.
The role is wide-ranging, and covers physical, mental and sexual wellbeing among others. The VP for Welfare raises awareness through things likes campaigns and events, they participate in lobbying and advocacy on behalf of the student body at national level, they sit on multiple boards and committees and a national representative, and they support local member organisations in their work. They also partner with the Mental Health Programme Manager on all things related to student mental health.
Colette Murphy is the Vice President for Welfare for the 2023-2024 academic year. She studied in DCU, and has been campaigning in areas of mental health throughout her time as a student there.
We asked Colette to answer some questions to help us get to know her better and here’s what she told us!
Tell us a bit about your background and how you came to be Welfare Officer?
I worked as the Vice President for Wellbeing in DCU last year and really enjoyed the experience. It was a mixture of advocating for policy changes, running events, doing casework with students and co-ordinating welfare campaigns. It was a busy but rewarding year! Before that, I chaired the Feminist Society in DCU which I was really passionate about and threw my heart into. I studied a BSc in Psychology in college, and this gave me a strong interest in mental health which has stood to me in this job.
I realised last year that some of the issues students came to me with required policy changes at a national level and didn’t have a quick fix. This motivated me to run for USI Welfare as I felt there would be more room in the role to focus on advocating for change.
Were there particular elements of mental health that you wanted to focus on were you to be elected?
I really wanted to do something around Men’s Mental Health, and help-seeking. For our student-facing campaigns it’s important to shine a light on areas that aren’t talked about and ensure that students know the resources that are available to them.
Lobbying and advocacy is also an important aspect of the job – as much as we encourage students to seek help, we sometimes hear that it wasn’t the right help for them, or they needed a higher level of care. This is often due to resourcing issues in student counselling services and the HSE.
My main focus for the year in terms of mental health is fighting for additional resources for students’ mental health so they can be supported appropriately. The international recommended ratio of counsellors to students is 1:1000 / 1:1500 depending on the specifics of the service. In Ireland our ratio is closer to 1:2240 – far outside the recommended ratio for effective and ethical practice, which really negatively effects students.
What are the keys areas you want to focus on this year? What do you think are the main issues students are dealing with at the moment?
Many students are really struggling at the moment, between the cost of living and accommodation crises. We have a high number of students commuting long distances or living in overpriced, precarious accommodation to get an education. The cost of college is forcing students to work longer hours and miss out on lectures as well as time to relax, unwind, and spend time with friends. Naturally this has a mental health impact, and affects the social side to college, making friends and feeling a part of campus life.
It’s important to be persistent in speaking up on behalf of students, and that we don’t accept the current accommodation crisis, cost of living crisis and increase in mental health problems among young people as the new normal. These are the key areas to focus on in my job this year, and I hope to be relentless in tackling these challenges.
What advice would you give to students about their mental health?
The main advice that I would give to students on their mental health is to be aware of your mental health, and consciously check- in on yourself and how you’re doing. Stressors are different for everyone but being aware of what causes you stress and when you need to look after yourself a bit more can go a long way in protecting your mental health throughout the semester. I find a bit of planning can help with this and trying to spread your assignments and other commitments out across the semester.
If there was one thing related to mental health that you wish all students knew, what would it be?
There’s no shame in reaching out for support! Lots of students encounter hurdles at college and whether it’s disability, financial, learning or mental health supports there’s usually someone in the college with the expertise to help. If you reach out for help early, you can get support before things snowball. It’s important to remember that you don’t need to be in crisis to go to the counselling services or an off-campus provider – mental health professionals are there to listen and help.
What is your favourite/ main form of self-care and why?
My favourite form of self-care is a movie or TV show before bed and a good night’s sleep! If I don’t get enough sleep it really throws me off the next day so I find it’s really important for me to prioritise it.