Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor directs new group to draw up plan to tackle drug and alcohol abuse among students
Senior gardaí student leaders, academics, health and addiction experts and parents are coming together to draw up a plan to tackle drug and alcohol abuse among college goers.
Higher Education Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor has set up the Rapid Response Group to produce a joined-up approach to the issue, with a report due within eight weeks. It had its first meeting today.
Harm reduction is the focus, but the make-up of the group suggests a challenge in navigating a line between more liberal attitudes to substance use among student representatives and others who take a conservative view.
When the idea was explored at a consultative meeting in June, one of the issues raised by students was the importance of being able to contact the emergency services without risk of being criminalised.
On the other side of the debate were those promoting abstinence and concerns that substance abuse among college-goers has reached epidemic proportions.
The minister was prompted to take action after attending the funerals of two students, where she promised their parents she would tackle the issue.
Announcing the membership of the committee, she said “some students are suffering serious harm. Some are dying and lives are shattered. We all have a responsibility to protect and education students and parents”.
She referred to the tragic death of Clonmel student Jack Downey at a music festival in August and a poignant radio interview with his mother, who warned that there were “no safe drugs”.
Ms Mitchell O’Connor added: “There are no safe drugs, no safe drug testing, no safe batch of drugs - and that is the message I will be giving out as a government minister, mother and grandmother.”
The minister said that while some good work was being done at institutional level, “we were not doing enough in a planned and joined-up way across the sector to counteract the negative impact of drug and substance abuse”.
Acknowledging the competing views on the expert group, Ms Mitchell O’Connor said she wanted them to “thrash it out” and the gardaí were involved to ensure there was an implementable plan.
As well as setting up the expert group to consider possible solutions, Ms Mitchell O’Connor has also sought firmer data on drug use among students in all higher education institutions.
She said statistics on drug use among students was anecdotal and she wanted “a clear and accurate account as to what we are dealing with”.
The data-gathering exercise will be led by Dr Michael Byrne, head of the Student Health Department at UCC, who is also a member of the Rapid Response Group.
Dr Byrne said all third-level colleges would be invited to survey their students about substance use and the motivations for it, and abstinence, and motivations for non-use.
He said it was “important to build on the number of students who don’t take a substance and have actively decided not to, so we might have some interventions for that group so they never proceed to take it”.
The minister said the combined initiatives would “give us the opportunity to build a sustainable strategy on how we message our young students around drug taking”.
She said she also wanted to drive home the message of responsible bystander intervention - “to always ‘step in’ when there is any indication that a friend or fellow student is at risk after consuming drugs by calling the emergency services.”
The Rapid Response Group, to be chaired by Dr Andrew Power of the Institute of Art Design and Technology, includes gardaí at the highest level - John O’Driscoll, Assistant Commissioner for Special Crime Operations, and Orla McPartlin, Assistant Commissioner for Community Engagement and Public Safety.
Other members of the 19-strong group include Dr Eamon Keenan, National Clinical Lead – Addiction Services; HSE, Mai Fanning, President, National Parents Council Post Primary; Fr Ben Hughes, Chaplin, NUI Galway; Roisin O’Donovan, Welfare Officer, USI; Dr Jo-Ann Ivers, Assistant Professor in Addiction, TCD; Professor Mary Cannon, Psychiatrist, RCSI and Gertie Raftery, Chairperson, Psychological Counsellors in Higher Education Ireland.
Asking about what role if any, drug-testing kits might play in the expert group’s deliberations, Dr Keenan said another HSE group was looking at the issue of drug testing, in line with the ‘reducing harm’ approach of the National Drugs Strategy.
He said the working group was starting to meet next week and would look at emerging drug trends and the issue of drug testing, and it would be premature to say anything until that group had considered the matter.