Understanding student suicide

16 February 2018
John de Pury

John de Pury

Assistant Director
Universities UK

​Every student suicide is tragic, devastating for family and friends and with profound and far-reaching impacts across wider communities of students and staff. It is hard to imagine anything more immediately testing for university leadership.

The topic is of heightened public interest though – sadly, local and national media have not always reported these deaths within the guidelines set out by the Samaritans. It is also of governmental concern. At the end of last year, Jeremy Hunt urged universities to respond to the steep rise in student suicides in England and Wales which he indicated have nearly doubled since 2007. The number is misleading – the Office for National Statistics does report an increase in deaths by suicide in full-time students in England and Wales from 2006 until 2016 but over the same period entrants to full-time first-degree, postgraduate taught and postgraduate research courses have also increased considerably (by 31.2%, 30.5% and 25.7% respectively) – it is the rate (per 100,000) that matters. But the Secretary of State's message is nonetheless important. There is much that can be done. As he went on to point out in the same article, big improvements in response and prevention can only be achieved on the basis of accurate and reliable data. Producing a robust national dataset remains challenging – relying as it does on coroners' verdicts which are susceptible to misreporting of student status. The ONS is currently working with HESA to link national aggregate records, work that will report in Spring 2018.

This week Universities UK launches a further research project in partnership with the University of Worcester to improve our understanding of student suicide to enable better prevention and response. A survey of UUK members elicits data about the incidence of student suicide and current suicide prevention strategies across the sector. Because of the highly sensitive nature of this information, individual organisations will not be attributed in the analysis and the research will only report aggregate data and general trends. The project has the support of the Department of Health, Public Health England and the Office for National Statistics.

Why is this important? Firstly, because there is much that universities can do to improve how they respond to deaths by suicide. There is significant variation in practice across the higher education sector and learning that could be drawn in from other sectors. For example, Business in the Community partnered with Public Health England to produce a suite of materials to help organisations support the mental and physical health and wellbeing of employees including an exemplary suicide postvention toolkit co-produced with the Samaritans. UUK is currently scoping co-producing a similar postvention toolkit for universities.

Secondly, because so many of these deaths may be preventable. Jeremy Hunt recently announced a 'zero suicide ambition' for NHS and care settings. What would this ambition mean for universities? Certainly it would involve access to services for those in distress, both university-provided support services and statutory health care with effective local join up between the two. But, given that many students take their lives without contact with services, this must be a wider effort, from institutional safe guarding to looking after your mate, from mental health first aid training to the building of aware and compassionate communities. These must be whole organisation approaches that prioritise the issue of mental health including mental distress and instigate and sustain systematic improvement.

These themes and more will be explored at our event Understanding, preventing and responding to student suicide on 24 April 2018 at Woburn House.​

Contact the Samaritans for free from any telephone on 116 123. You can call even if you don't have credit on your mobile, and the number won't show up on phone bills. You can also email jo@samaritans.org or go to https://www.samaritans.org/how-we-can-help-you/contact-us to find details of your nearest branch, where you can talk to one of their trained volunteers face to face.​

Leave a Comment

Dave Wilson
Dave Wilson says:
16 February 2018 at 19:50

If only so many of these strategies had a solid evidence base behind them. Sadly, many do not, and given we are in an academic environment, it's a little embarrassing. We must do more to prevent suicides, but we must be more evidence based in our approach.

Angela Mason
Angela Mason says:
6 April 2018 at 21:12

I am very fortunate that my son returned home from university.  After a catalogue of let downs by the student services and well-being services it could have been a very different outcome.  My son DID ask for help but was asked for this form or that form completing.  He was passed from one person to another.  Despite our son telling he university he was ok for the university to contact us regarding anything to do with his well-being they failed to do so.  He told student services he had spend hours and hours over days and weeks with a scapal over his wrist not wanting to be around anymore.  No-one from the university thought this serious enough to get in contact with us.  Thank goodness we know our son and knew he wasn't himself.  It was seeing an article whilst googling the university that really hit it home to us.  A student had commited suicide at the same universsity less than a year before.  The article was from the mum saying how she had felt so badly let down by everyone at the university.  We travelled the 6 hours to get our son and he came home.  He was in a bad way.  I do not understand why no-one at the university could see how desperate he was.  The univesity never even bothered to contact him even after a week, they didn't know he had come home.  He could have been dead in his accommodation for all they knew.  The university took his money, put him into debt and quite frankly put his mental health in a worst state.  They made him feel a burden, his own words.  He withdrew 6 months ago.  We are in the process of supporting our son in submitting a complaint to hopefully get some recompense and stop this happening to another student.  The university's need to be more proactive witth the young adults they are working for.  There departments need to communicate with each other, with outside agencies like GP's and support groups.  

Isabelle says:
23 May 2018 at 20:39

Conservative politicians should really take a look at this. Especially Michael Gove.

so many students are ending their lives and so what do the conservatives do?

make degrees and gradings like GCSEs increasingly harder when there is already too much pressure.

they are all murderers in my opinion.

john smith
john smith says:
24 May 2018 at 15:21

@davewilson shut up 

alyson price
alyson price says:
12 June 2018 at 18:59

My son arrived at university to find no communal area in his hall of residence, and as there were no catering facilities offered in any of the halls of residence there were obviously no communal eating opportunities either. Half of the six members in his "flat" were foreign nationals who, understandably, tended to stick together and speak their common first language. All the bedrooms had fire doors on which made it very difficult to have an open door policy. The young lad next door to my son went from being a friendly, cheerful student on the first day to staying in bed at weekends and leaving before Christmas. When I enquired about the possibility of my son moving to another flat with others who had more in common with him we were politely told to butt out and let him do it for himself - he didn't. My son is naturally introverted and has a problem with social anxiety, and like thousands of other youngsters, he does not engage easily, he needs to be drawn out. When he is asked to join in he always does. I realised very soon on that he was socially isolated in a way he never was at school so I would text him late every night to make sure he was safe. The programme on Radio Four today about Ben Murray at Bristol University and the many others like him made me weep. I am a psychotherapist and I feel that the over-heated university sector is concerned only with profits, not with designing social, co-living spaces or employing well trained professionals to help students.