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Faster boats: data analytics to prevent student suicides

20 December 2018

James Murray

Father of Ben Murray
Photo credit: RNLI / Simon Culliford

Photo credit: RNLI / Simon Culliford

​"Vicious waves slamming you onto a rocky shore, and your tired body dragging itself up, over and over.”

Nancy Tucker describing poor mental health at university in her book That Was When People Started to Worry.


Living in Falmouth, I am aware of the amazing job done by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

Their vision is to ‘end preventable loss of life at sea’, and they aim to halve the number of people who drown off our coasts by 2024 through partnering with other organisations, emphasising prevention and education, and responding to distress calls with trained volunteers and faster boats. In 2016, they saved 558 lives – 116 more than in 2015 – and are currently renewing their fleet so every boat can exceed 25 knots of speed.

At least 95 higher education students died by suicide in 2016–17. My son Ben took his own life in May 2018. He was just 19 years old. This is a journey that no one wants or expects to go on.

James Murray

I am convinced that Ben’s death was preventable. Had we known of his predicament at university – his difficulties engaging with his studies, his increasing anxiety and distress, (not surprising given he had lost his place and been asked to leave his student accommodation), – we could have done something. Indeed, had the university detected these flags and acted, Ben might still be alive. My conviction is accompanied by a determination to learn from his death to help prevent others. We need to get the right intervention to the right student at the right time – a faster boat to help us respond to distress calls more quickly.

Author Nancy Tucker and I met a few weeks after Ben’s death. Nancy said that verbal and behavioural signs of mental distress are often there; we just need to get better at spotting them. Students sailing ‘close to the rocks’ might change appearance or behaviour, exhibit confused thinking in essays, be withdrawn in tutorial groups or persistently submit work in the early hours. My personal goal is to unlock the data that points to these signs. But how?

Last month’s Universities UK workshop on Data analytics for student mental health suggested some answers. Convening institutional leadership, sector agencies and technology providers, the meeting explored the application of technology as part of a whole university approach to help students thrive and get the most out of their time at university. There were great case studies from Northumbria University, Nottingham Trent University, and the University of South Wales, all of which ascribed a key role to analytics in the increasingly personalised engagement between students and institution.

The meeting also picked up on a more immediate use of this technology: to identify students suffering from acute crises and to trigger appropriate interventions.

We believe that more than half of all students who die by suicide have no history of mental illness or contact with student mental health services. Rules-based early alert systems have the potential to rectify this, by identifying at-risk students and merging academic with non-academic data to provide a whole student profile to intervention teams. Capturing the ‘student voice’ through systems, as well as enabling self-assessment and disclosure through ‘friction-free’ digital channels could also encourage a virtuous circle of disclosure and intervention – as would access to effective support, whether face-to-face with a counsellor, or digital, where a range of text or voice-based options are available and evidenced.

These systems must align with and augment the goals of the Suicide Safer Universities guide developed by UUK and Papyrus, which recommends a whole university approach to suicide prevention, intervention and postvention by:

  • building compassionate communities via training for staff and students to spot the signs of distress.  We can assist overloaded academic and professional staff by making it easier and faster to get the right information. 

  • encouraging disclosure and information sharing by students and across staff

  • giving hope so students see that their difficulties will pass

Ultimately, for these technologies to save lives, like the Royal National Lifeboat Institution we will need a vision and framework to establish the context and opportunities.

From early alert systems to detect signs of distress, to digital interventions that increase engagement, optimise the curriculum, and put student health and wellbeing at the centre of what universities do. The vision: ‘help end preventable loss of life’. The aim: halve the number of suicides in higher education by 2024.

An early warning system that gets the right intervention to the right student at the right time, is the faster boat that every university needs.

Leave a Comment

Alison jackson
Alison jackson says:
7 January 2019 at 23:04

So sorry for your loss, interesting theory.  I have children doing Gcse, A levels and at Uni and it is worrying the stress and mental health issues around young people.  I am a paediatric nurse and see far too many overdoses and other self harm issues today.  Any ideas and help in these areas is worth trying to prevent more sadness.


Lyn MacLeod
Lyn MacLeod says:
8 January 2019 at 04:24

Hi James,

I am so sorry to read this story, I am sorry for the loss of Ben to you and your family. As many of your colleagues past and present work in the analytics field , this is the best way we can help. If I can help in any way locally I can, by engaging with Universities in Sydney, their research arms to help in the invention of student to prevent suicide. I would be honoured to help. Only an email or call away.  


Tom Schodorf
Tom Schodorf says:
9 January 2019 at 14:18

It's a daunting task James and I like that you're on it.  Your passion and personal experience on the subject and expertise in business, analytics, and innovation will serve you well.  If you haven't already done so, there are probably some already established groups and associations to get to know and potentially align with for a bigger voice.  Also, writing articles (as here), leveraging your network, getting on radio shows and using social media extensively will lead to awareness, support, and maybe even a new angle to pursue.  Universities are very concerned about reputation so shining a light on the problem with good data is another way to "challenge" the system and stimulate action.  Like any startup effort there will be twists and turns but with eyes firmly focused on your vision statement and call to action you will find a strong path.  I support your efforts.