Alarm over student suicides

November 3, 1995

Students are at "special risk" from stress-induced suicide because of fears over unemployment and subsequent "failure", a social work expert warned this week.

The financial pressures facing today's students, combined with growing competition for graduate jobs, are creating anxiety which is responsible for an increasing number of suicides and dozens of attempted suicides every year.

But Colin Pritchard, professor of social work studies at Southampton University, says that many tragedies could be avoided if students had more access to counselling and one-to-one contact with tutors.

His observations, which follow research for a new book on the causes of suicide, Suicide - the Ultimate Rejection?, were backed by the findings of two national surveys. The first, conducted by the British Medical Association, discovered that university doctors were reporting a rising number of students being treated for stress-related illnesses, including eating and sleeping disorders.

The survey, which followed concerns over the mental and physical health of students raised by the British Association of Health Services in Higher Education, found growing instances of panic attacks, chronic fatigue and depression among students trying to hold down part-time jobs while studying, or worrying about their employment prospects on completing their courses.

The second, carried out by the Liberal Democrats' education team, found that the rate of student suicides rose fourfold in the decade to 1993/94 - even allowing for the expansion in student numbers over that period. Among 84 universities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland responding to the survey, there were four suicides out of a student population of 167,100 in 1983/84 - a rate of 2.4 per 100,000. In 1993/94 there were 32 suicides out of 329,606 students - a rate of 9.7 per 100,000.

Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said students with financial problems were "devastated" at the thought of not gaining at least an upper second class degree and therefore ruining their career prospects. Underfunded university counselling services could not cope with the resultant growing demands for help.

Calling on the Government to review counselling services, he said: "It is terrible that people who are at university, supposedly benefiting from the education they are receiving there, are being crippled by stress and financial worries."

Professor Pritchard said that for every death, there were up to 80 suicide attempts.

His book draws a link between record levels of unemployment in Britain and one of the higher increases in youth suicide in the western world. Unemployment had a special impact on the student group, he said. "These are people whose expectations have been raised by their success so far, but for whom the fear of failure looms large," he added.

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