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Home > Action plan for drug use and higher education institutions.

Dillon, Lucy (2020) Action plan for drug use and higher education institutions. Drugnet Ireland , Issue 73, Spring 2020 , pp. 17-18.

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In June 2019, the Minister of State for Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor TD, convened a meeting of stakeholders to review the issue of drug use in higher education. Part of the outcome from this meeting was the establishment of a Rapid Response Group (RRG) whose brief was to develop an action plan on the issue, consistent with national strategy. In February 2020, the Department of Education published the Framework for response to the use of illicit substances within higher education, which is based on the work of the RRG.1, 2

RRG membership

Membership of RRG included academics, members of An Garda Síochána, students, and first responders within higher education institutions (HEIs). It was chaired by Dr Andrew Power of the Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT) and led by Dr Michael Byrne, head of the Student Health Department at University College Cork (UCC). In her foreword to the report, the Minister described HEIs as having a role in implementing actions that can ‘reduce the number of students who decide to use drugs in the first place, or to reduce the harm experienced by those students who have chosen to use drugs’ (p. 3).1

Recommended actions

Central to the RRG’s report and subsequent framework is a set of actions that HEIs are recommended to undertake, where relevant to their institution. These are grounded in consideration of the following:

Existing legislation regarding the use and misuse of drugs

The National Drugs and Alcohol Strategy 2017–20253

The evolving National Healthy Campus Charter and Framework

Existing activities being carried out in HEIs to address drug and alcohol-related harm, including REACT (Reacting to Excessive Alcohol Consumption in Third-level)

Input and expertise of RRG members.

The RRG identifies four core actions, with a further set of 12 actions. The core actions recommend that each HEI should:

Develop a drug and alcohol policy specific to the institution.

Develop and implement a drug and alcohol action plan specific to the institution and its students.

Assign to a senior officer of the institution the responsibility for leading the development of the policy and implementation of the action plan.

Facilitate student engagement with the collection of national-level data on drug use in HEIs.

The additional 12 actions are divided under four themes: institutional leadership; student engagement; community engagement; and service provision.

Institutional leadership

This theme is focused on each HEI’s ability to adapt in a complex societal, academic, legislative, and policy environment, while also focusing on the ambitions and welfare of its students. In this context, the actions relate to the evaluation of the effectiveness of individual HEI action plans; the provision of designated substance-free student accommodation and social spaces; and the provision of space for support groups working with those experiencing problematic drug and alcohol use.

Student engagement

The actions under this theme recommend the provision of an online educational, screening, and brief intervention tool; consideration of substance use when planning large-scale student events; and the implementation of a student community support system.

Community engagement

In a context where HEIs consider themselves to have an important role to play in their local communities, the actions are to hold annual meetings with local stakeholders, such as local residents, Gardaí, and local businesses; and to develop partnerships with local community groups such as the local authority and local drug and alcohol task forces.

Service provision

The RRG notes the role of HEIs in providing adequate resources and services to meet the needs of their students. In line with this, the drug-related services identified in the actions are counselling services; visible and accessible referral pathways to treatment; interventions for higher risk groups described as ‘vulnerable individuals or individuals from minority groups or communities’ (p. 15)2; and the provision of training for staff and students in order to deliver brief interventions and advice.

Drug Use in Higher Education in Ireland survey

In its report, the RRG identified a gap in knowledge about the extent and nature of drug use among students in HEIs. The Drug Use in Higher Education in Ireland (DUHEI) survey has been commissioned and is currently being conducted by a team based in the School of Public Health at UCC. It involves a multidisciplinary team of academics, researchers, and clinicians from Public Health, Business Information Systems, Psychology, and the Student Health Service in UCC, in collaboration with the Higher Education Authority and the RRG.

The survey aims to provide a comprehensive picture of drug use among the higher education population in Ireland. It will cover six areas:

Demographics – age, gender, year of study, etc.

Student life – club/society membership

Drug use – lifetime, recent and current use, frequency of use and drug types, harms, and experiences of consequences

Cognitive enhancers – use and motivations for use of cognitive enhancers

Student wellbeing – personal and relationships

Drug use social norms – student perceptions of drug use.

Fieldwork was due to be carried out in 22 HEIs across the country in March 2020 and a preliminary report presented to the Minister and all participating institutions in mid-2020 (personal correspondence, DUHEI Survey Team, UCC). However, due to the Covid-19 crisis the survey has been suspended.4

1 Rapid Response Group on Use of Illicit Substances within Higher Education (2020) Framework for response to the use of illicit substances within higher education. Based on the report of the Rapid Response Group (RRG) on Use of Illicit Substances within Higher Education. Dublin: Department of Education and Skills. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/31649/

2 Rapid Response Group on Use of Illicit Substances within Higher Education (2019) The report of the Rapid Response Group (RRG) on Use of Illicit Substances within Higher Education. Dublin: Department of Education and Skills. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/31649/

3 Department of Health (2017) Reducing harm, supporting recovery: a health-led response to drug and alcohol use in Ireland 2017–2025. Dublin: Department of Health.
https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/27603/

4 See https://www.ucc.ie/en/studentsurveys/survey-calendar/

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