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.
Last 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.
John de Pury, Assistant Director, Universities UK