A local election candidate has called on the government to establish an acute assessment facility at University Hospital Galway's psychiatric unit so service users can bypass the emergency department.
Fianna Fail's Imelda Byrne stated she had heard several "horror stories" of seriously ill psychiatric patients having to spend "endless hours" in the hospital's A & E department waiting to be assessed.
"This is at a time when people are at their most vulnerable and families are stressed to their limits trying to cope," she said. "It is an inhumane system especially when we have one of the most modern psychiatric units in the country in UHG. Surely it's possible to staff an acute assessment unit there."
The Galway City Central candidate outlined that mental health was a major issue of concern today. She was very aware through her work with NUI Galway's access programme of the "enormous pressure" on the university's counselling service and has called on the Minister for Health to provide "real investment" in mental health services.
"In respect of higher education, overall student numbers have increased annually at NUI Galway. Since 2008 however, the trend has been to see funding continuously decreased and student numbers continually rise - the gap has become bigger. There is a significant increase in the number of third level students and there is a requirement for additional resources particularly in the counselling services which are stretched beyond capacity.
"In the first six months of this year figures were 150 higher than the previous year so by year end it would be expected that there will be an increase in the region of 300 extra this year if that level of increase continues. Some 7.8 per cent of students used the service last year and obviously this year the percentage will have increased significantly. Currently 135 students are waiting for appointments at a time of year when support may be critical to not only their mental health but also to their progression through college."
The increase in the level of suicidality among students attending counselling this year was particularly disturbing, she said. "Last year the average waiting time for appointments, because of increased demand, was four days longer than the previous year. The average waiting time last year was 17.7 days and this is averaged throughout the year, including the summer months, so obviously at critical times before exams, when students need a speedy response, it can be much longer."
Ms Byrne, who is a niece of the late Cllr Mary Byrne, who was Galway's first lady mayor, said that a pre and post counselling survey undertaken by NUI Galway stated that 96 per cent of students who attended counselling said it helped them stay on in college while 97 per cent said that it assisted them in improving their academic work. A total of 43 per cent of students attending counselling last year were from under-represented groups and non-traditional backgrounds.
"It is evident that if we wish to support students to remain in college and do better academically we need to take seriously the support needs of students as they are inextricably connected. That entails a rethink of funding and resourcing of the services which make, equality, diversity, and inclusion a reality and not just an empty promise," she said.