Four developments to note on student suicide prevention policy

There are four different developments around policy on preventing student suicide to note today.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

The first is that Bristol County Court has refused the University of Bristol permission to appeal the judgement in the Natasha Abrahart case.

That found Equality Act failings with the way that the university handled and made allowances for a student with depression and social anxiety disorder.

Judge Alexander Ralton, who heard the original case brought by Robert and Margaret Abrahart, said the university’s request to ask for permission to appeal failed because they had “essentially repeated” the same arguments which failed at a trial in May this year.

The university is still able to file an application to the High Court for permission to appeal there by October 14.

Whole the court upheld allegations of disability discrimination, the court found that a “duty of care” based on an assumption of responsibility for the health, wellbeing and safety of students did not exist.

On that issue the parents of Harry Armstrong Evans, a University of Exeter student who died by suicide last year, have called on the government to legislate to require universities to annually publish their student suicide rates and establish such a “duty of care” for students.

The inquest is due to be held today and tomorrow, and will hear that Harry was one of 11 students at Exeter reported to have died by suicide in the last six years – although the university says that not all have been officially confirmed as suicides by the coroner.

Evans’ mother explains both the “duty of care” image/reality issue that was a component of the Abrahart case, and a public data/choice underpinning for their proposals:

He was quite shy, but the university proudly publicised great wellbeing services and pastoral support. Nowhere did we read about the number of students who had taken their own life or indeed that, just a year prior, someone on the same course Harry had selected, had committed suicide. Had we known just how much of a problem Exeter University had, then there is no way we would have agreed to let Harry study there.”

What they are labelling “Harry’s Law” would require coroners courts to inform higher education providers when the suicide of an enrolled student is registered, require universities to keep a record of and publish stats around student suicides, and legislate for universities to provide a “duty of care” to students.

They also propose that Department for Education (DfE) be given powers to be able to investigate, intervene and place universities into “special measures” where a university’s suicide rate exceeds that of the national average, and would make it mandatory for personal and academic tutors to undertake mental health awareness training.

The regulatory design here is interesting – the power of transparency of prevalence data is again raised, and while I’m not sure about the stats or the DfE powers, there is a decent argument that higher education providers in England be charged with a particular adult safeguarding duty via the Office for Students (OfS).

I set out the thinking in a piece on the site a while back – it would require providers to demonstrate that in developing and implementing policies, procedures and practice, they have given due regard to relevant guidance about protecting people from harm – and then a legal tort of the same type being proposed in the Free Speech bill would then allow an individual to take action if they saw a failing.

It all reminds us just how preposterous it is that the government is legislating over the culture wars, but not issues like this.

The proposal on training for academic staff is also interesting. As I’ve said before, the failure of the sector to properly settle a view on the appropriate role for academic staff in relation to mental health (and in particular mental health disability) means that staff are at risk of either undercooking or overcooking their role in these types of issue.

It may just be a coincidence, but news reached us very early this morning that Universities UK, in partnership with PAPYRUS Prevention of Young Suicide, has published recommendations calling on universities to be more proactive in preventing student suicides. In particular, the new guidance sets out how and when universities should involve families, carers and trusted others when there are serious concerns about the safety or mental health of a student.

The proposals would:

  • Make it mandatory for students to give a trusted contact at registration, being clear that the contact does not have to be a parent, and starting a conversation about when and how these contacts might be involved
  • See check-ins at the start of each academic year for students to update this information and making it easy to update the contact if circumstances change
  • Ensure that universities review their suicide prevention plans and policies to keep students safe, identifying students of concern, assessing risk, working in close partnership with NHS services and, where there are serious concerns, initiating conversations about involving trusted contacts
  • Make clear that, although always preferable to gain agreement from the student, where there are serious concerns about a student’s safety or mental health, universities can decide to involve trusted contacts without agreement.
  • Such decisions should always be made in the student’s interests, be taken by appropriately qualified staff, supported by senior leadership, be based on a risk assessment establishing the grounds for serious concern and be properly governed and recorded.

In the initially published version of an interview with the BBC, UUK President Steve West was supposed to have said that while the guidance won’t be mandatory, universities that failed to follow it as best practice would “lose” University Mental Health Charter status. That was later amended – after all, the link is not mentioned in either sets of documentation, and of course not all HE providers are pursuing the UHMC, at least not yet.

Earlier this week, UUK also published a checklist to help universities support students on placement, with the help of Izzy de George, whose brother Harrison dierd by suicide in December 2020 while studying at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) to be a teacher.

On both the Armstrong Evans story and the UUK story, the Department for Education’s lacklustre response has been as follows:

The mental health and wellbeing of students, including suicide prevention, is of paramount importance to the government, which is why this year we asked the Office for Students to allocate £15m towards student mental health.”

What it doesn’t say is that even that pitiful amount is to be focussed on transitions from school or college to university and for joint working with NHS mental health services – so not really “including” suicide prevention at all.

On the Armstrong Evans case, a University of Exeter spokesperson said:

We are deeply saddened by Harry’s death and the family’s loss. The university is fully engaged with the coroner’s inquest this week, which will report the facts and it would be completely inappropriate to comment further until the inquest has concluded.

We can say, however, that we have invested significantly in student welfare and wellbeing support in recent years and we are acutely aware of the current mental health challenges for young people. We provide support services seven days a week both on campus and in the community, including throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Student health and wellbeing is always the University of Exeter’s top priority.”

4 responses to “Four developments to note on student suicide prevention policy

  1. Suicide prevention duties if enshrined in law at the Academic supervisor level will destroy the whole trust based Academic/adult student relationship, the first Academic who gets prosecuted for failing to prevent an adult student taking their own life by the state, followed no doubt by a private persecution prosecution, and commits suicide themself will be a victim of a situation they might not even have been aware of, this does not bode well for Academic staff. On the plus side it will place the situation firmly in Academic and management hands, rather than it being another thing Technical staff end up having to deal with:

    Having talked students down from potential suicide situations, and a family member whilst they were a student from committing suicide, I would predict many mentally fragile and stressed teaching Academics won’t cope with the task on top of their already heavy workloads. And we should not forget that once a student graduates and leaves the ‘ongoing childhood’ protection of the University they will be even more likely to commit suicide unless they have been hardened to the ‘real world’ of work, something I have witnessed with the suicide of a wonderful young man who never learnt how the deal with the stresses of the ‘real world’ outside of academia due to the overly protective University he attended.

    We should also not forget parental expectations are a major factor in student suicides, several suicides at my Uni had significant parental pressure to succeed issues, and far too many parents seek to blame others rather than take their share of responsibility in the cause of the suicide.

    The effects of ANTI-social media are there 24/365, can Academic’s do anything to prevent that???

  2. In terms of ‘adult safeguarding’, very few students would meet the criteria to make a referral to a local authority board for adults in need of safeguarding: you’re talking about people who lack capacity and/or are in receipt of local authority care.

    One of the most vexatious issues with this edict from UUK is when universities press the button on the “trusted contact” given there is very little consistency about monitoring attendance, engagement, etc.

    1. One action everyone reading this can take is to participate in suicide prevention training. Free online suicide prevention training that has had very positive feedback from participants across HE including frontline teams in accommodation, libraries and academic departments can be found at:

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