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Questions about human tragedy demand a human response

Simon Merrywest calls for a more human response to requests for information about student suicide on campus
This article is more than 1 year old

Simon Merrywest is Director for the Student Experience at the University of Manchester

The Office for National Statistics recently published its latest analysis on student suicides in England and Wales – and found a decline in rates over the academic years 2016/17 to 2019/20.

Whilst the report notes some caution that this may, in part, be because of delays to coroner’s outcomes caused by the pandemic, what is clear from the data is that student suicide rates in England and Wales are less than half the rates compared with the general population at similar ages.

The reasons for this are not fully understood – but the ready access to free mental health support when at universities is likely to be a factor. This is a positive but there will always be more that we can do.

The importance of properly recording suicide data

Also released recently was the latest in a long line of Freedom of Information (FOI) data, this time collected by media organisation National World, and based on requests sent to all UK universities asking how many of their students had died by suicide since 2018.

Of the 114 institutions that replied, 67 (59 per cent) reportedly said they did not hold the information and 5 universities refused to divulge the figures. The responses from the remaining 42 universities revealed records of at least 120 students having taken their own lives since 2018.

The inability of so many universities to provide this information, largely (based on this account at least) because they appear not to know is something we should challenge ourselves about as a sector.

Granted, some FOI hesitancy is perhaps understandable, not least with a topic this sensitive, and because some universities have received a fair amount of opprobrium in the media and online about student suicide.

Potential liability concerns are also a consideration, but the reality is that beyond the coronial process, legal proceedings, whilst often receiving media prominence, are rare. Undoubtedly therefore some take the view that it is better not to answer to FOI requests – hesitant that their responses will be used against them.

Better supporting families and friends

However, this misses a far bigger point.

The loss of a loved one to suicide is a very painful, human event that has a lasting effect on families, friends and all those that knew the person that has died. A suicide is without equal the most emotionally challenging issue that occurs within our universities and demands a very human response; a sense that the institution and its leadership understand the pain and wider impact of what has happened.

And that is why not providing (or worse still, not even collecting) a complete picture about student suicide is so problematic.

It is of course accurate to say (as some FOI responses are often caveated) that suicide is a conclusion that can only be reached by a coroner (in England, Wales and Northern Ireland at least).

But this must never be a cloak to hide behind. Inquests are held in open court, are usually listed in advance online and their conclusions are a matter of public record. So, with little effort, it is perfectly possible to collect such information.

At the University of Manchester, for instance, we have developed a good relationship with the local coroner’s team, to the extent that the University is now routinely notified of any sudden student deaths and is invited to the subsequent inquest.

Our actions shape perceptions for the bereaved

How universities respond when a student dies shapes perceptions for the bereaved. The immense grief that families experience can be eased, even if only slightly, by holding dear the hope that some small good can come from such a loss.

If universities are not keeping a record of how many students have died by suicide, then how can they be providing families and others affected with an effective postvention response or considering whether there is anything that can be learned because of what has happened? Moreover, some bereaved families have resorted to the FOI process as what they have felt is the only route believed likely to yield answers to some of their questions.

An empathetic and whole university response to suicide is a key principle behind a forthcoming sector-wide UUK-Papyrus-Samaritans postvention framework which will be published in September.

This framework builds on the UKK-Papyrus Suicide Safer Universities framework which was published in 2018.

It has been developed by those working on the frontline of student support and leading researchers, with key contributions from students, families and organisations with a focus on suicide and bereavement and will provide practical advice on how to give compassionate, confident and timely support when a student death by suspected suicide takes place.

A human response to a human tragedy

This sector is full of colleagues who care deeply about the students that they support and who themselves can be personally affected by a student suicide.

But without our institutions being more open and demonstrating a more human response to requests for information about suicide, we are adversely shaping perceptions of the bereaved and those impacted by suicide and further feeding an often-negative narrative.

2 responses to “Questions about human tragedy demand a human response

  1. I agree that student deaths local to the institution should be something we are aware of. But requests for the numbers of students who have taken their own life are very reductive; do we include students who are out of attendance?
    What about those who have been de-registered? Many people would say ‘yes’ to both, but if they have not been engaged with the university for a year, or two years, or three, are they still ‘one of our students’? Then there are students living outside the UK – depending on where in the world they lived, it might be difficult to get reliable information. What about PGR students who are also staff?

    Each suicide is a tragedy that can affect at least 150 people (according to research) and asking universities to keep a tally of these tragedies doesn’t necessarily tell us anything helpful.

  2. Simon, in response:-

    “do we include students who are out of attendance?
    What about those who have been de-registered? ”

    Maybe worth looking into causal links between students dropping out & suicide and if preventative measures need to be improved:-

    – Are tutors who are dealing with students demonstrating a cause for concern trained & empowered to offer appropriate pastoral support as opposed to brushing off any such need for support with a referral to another service?

    – What is the response time for contacting students who are in non attendance to check in with them & offer pastoral support / signposting to support services?

    – We should absolutely include all students who are out of attendance / deregistered in stats.

    – Unis should consider implementing automatic referral for mental health support if and when a student shows signs of lack of interest / engagement / anxiety / any other behaviour out of the ordinary.

    – Unis should offer exit interviews & gain feedback of why students drop out. I’ve heard so many stories of students facing barriers to participation in the social side of uni which has contributed to them dropping out and losing interest in uni as the SU offers nothing to engage them.

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