Suicide prevention in universities

We know that most mental health problems develop by the age of 24. This means that our mental health can be particularly vulnerable during university.1 Suicides among university students are of particular concern. In the 12 months leading up to July 2017, 95 suicides were recorded among higher education students in England and Wales. This equates to one death every four days.

Student mental health is a topic that is often talked about in the media. The previous Universities Minister, Sam Gyimah, helped to push student mental health even higher up the government’s agenda. This much needed attention and change is welcome, as is the government’s announcement today of a Student Mental Health Taskforce that will aim to increase support for students to transition from sixth form or college into university. Every student suicide is a tragedy and actions should be taken to prevent this from happening. 

However, it is important to note that although student suicide is incredibly concerning, the rate of suicide among university students is actually significantly lower when compared with the general population of young people, which includes students and non-students.1 This suggests that we need to work together across different sectors to reduce the number of suicides among young people.

More male students die by suicide 

Looking at data over a 16 year period (2000 to 2017), two thirds of student suicides in England and Wales were among young men.1 Why might this be the case?

Though suicide is not a mental health problem itself, it is linked with acute mental distress, so taking a closer look at gender differences in mental health could help us better understand this disparity.  

Sticking too rigidly to traditional ideas of masculinity, which tend to favour strength, stoicism, dominance and control, may have a negative impact on men’s mental health. This may also stop them from expressing concerns about their mental health and seeking help. Men may also be more likely to exhibit symptoms of depression through anger or irritation, which means they may be overlooked or misdiagnosed by services.

Given that mental health issues increase the risk of suicide, it is of great importance that we reach out proactively to male students who may be struggling with their mental health. 

How universities can help prevent student suicides 

Papyrus and Universities UK have recently published guidance around suicide prevention in universities which includes a checklist of practical steps to take.3 Among other things, the guidance calls for suicide awareness training for all student-facing staff. This training aims to help staff spot and respond to signs of student distress. 

Although helpful, suicide awareness training should consider the potential emotional issues, not just for students, but for academic and teaching staff, who are increasingly expected to adopt welfare responsibilities for students in addition to their core role. 

Despite an increased focus on student mental health, there is still much more to learn about suicide in the student population. This means that accurate data and more in-depth research about students who die by suicide are needed to enhance our understanding of this complex issue. 

The whole-university approach to suicide prevention: whereby university leaders take an organisational approach to the mental health of their students and staff and make suicide prevention an institutional priority. This needs to be informed by best practice. 

How students can look after their own mental health and support others 

Students commonly experience competing demands from their personal and academic lives. When it comes to prevention, equipping students with the skills to manage these pressures as well as look after their mental health and wellbeing may help stop mental health problems from developing in the first place. 

Are you a student interested in mental health? Here are three things you can do to look after yourself and others: 

1. Find your niche 

It is a good idea to explore what your university offers, whether these are societies, sports or volunteering groups, to see whether you can find like-minded people. However, finding like-minded people doesn’t have to take place on campus. There is a world beyond university, and you may find groups that you would like to join or activities that appeal to you in your local community.     

2. Learn about the mental health services offered in your university 

Understanding what services are available in your university is important and many students aren’t aware of this.  You could act as an informal champion of student mental health and spread this information to some of your peers. 

3. Be there for others 

Notice and reach out to fellow students when you can see they may be struggling. Signs of difficulty with mental health might include, among other things, acting withdrawn or talking about feeling hopeless, ashamed or trapped. It’s OK to ask your fellow students how they are feeling and to offer to listen supportively. This can help create a culture of openness and help everyone to feel more connected.  

Resources 

For urgent support or assistance with your mental health: 

If you are a student and you need urgent support, you can talk to someone from the Samaritans for free, 24/7 on 116 123. If you need medical help, please contact your local GP and book an emergency GP appointment. You can also get urgent medical advice from NHS 111 (England and Wales) or NHS 24 (Scotland) on the number 08454 242424. For immediate medical assistance or attention, please call 999 or visit your local Accident & Emergency. 

Useful student mental health organisations and resources: 

Student Minds – the student mental health charity that aims to develop new and innovative ways to improve the mental health of students. Contains useful information about finding support for yourself or a peer. 

Papyrus – a suicide prevention charity that has some helpful resources and a helpline (0800 068 41 41) and email (pat@papyrus-uk.org) for young people at risk of suicide or those that are worried about a young person at risk of suicide.   

Samaritans – a charity that provides emotional support to anyone in emotional distress, struggling to cope, or at risk of suicide throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland.  You can call them free on 116 123 or email at jo@samaritans.org (UK) or jo@samaritans.ie (ROI). 

Big White Wall – an online mental health community where you can access 24/7 support in an anonymous and judgement-free environment. 

Help us improve the mental health of university students

There is still more to learn about suicide in the student population. Donate to help us provide more accurate data and in-depth research on student mental health and what works to prevent suicides.

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References 

1Kessler, R., Berglund, P., Demler, O., Jin, R., Merikangas, K. and Walters, E. (2005). Lifetime Prevalence and Age-of-Onset Distributions of DSM-IV Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62(6), p.593.  

2Office for National Statistics (25 June 2018) Estimating suicide among higher education students, England and Wales: Experimental Statistics.

3Universities UK and Papyrus (2018) Suicide-safer Universities (.pdf). [Accessed 05/03/18]