Alert on suicide signs

June 1, 2007

A charity campaign aims to help staff recognise and act on danger signals from students, reports Rebecca Attwood

University staff need to recognise their part in preventing student suicide and supporting the friends and family of students who have taken their own life, bereaved parents said this week.

Academic staff should be aware of warning signs from their students, such as missing lectures, ambivalence about the future and fear of failure, according to guidance issued by Papyrus, a suicide-prevention charity.

The advice is contained in a suicide-prevention resource pack from the charity - founded by a group of parents who have lost children to suicide - aimed specifically at universities and colleges. The packs contain information about recognising and acting on the signs of a young person in distress, and about dealing with the aftermath of a suicide. They are the result of the first in-depth study into UK student suicide, commissioned by the charity and published earlier this year.

Anne Parry, chair of Papyrus, who lost her son to suicide, said: "The research identified a need for institutions to be aware that students are a vulnerable group.

"We are not sending out a message that universities can stop suicides happening, but we are saying that with greater awareness and early intervention suicide can be prevented.

"As part of pastoral care, staff need advice and support in order to recognise when a young person may be in distress and how to guide them to access help."

The resource packs contain a 12-minute DVD, a booklet for academic staff and three information cards: one for ancillary staff, one for students who may be worried about a friend and one for students who may be feeling that they are unable to cope.

They will be made available to every higher education institution in England and Wales through a series of seminars to be held throughout the country.

Steve Page, from the Association of Managers of Student Services in Higher Education, said: "What's important is that staff trust their instincts, so if they are concerned about someone, they take that seriously.

"Our students are adults and they have the right to privacy, but on the other hand we also have a duty of care, and it is important that we are proactive about that."

A key finding of the Papyrus study, conducted by academics at the University of Central Lancashire and King's College London, was that three quarters of the student suicides studied occurred at transitional times towards the start or end of the academic year. The study recommends that universities review staff availability during these periods.

Sharon Mallon, a researcher from UCLan who worked on the project, said:

"There are all sorts of reasons why students are especially vulnerable at these times.

"Informal peer networks may be disappearing; the idea of physically packing up and moving home seemed to be a particular problem for some students."

Anyone who is concerned that a young person they know may be suicidal can speak confidentially to professionally trained staff on the Papyrus helpline, HOPELineUK, on 0870 1704000.

For information on seminars and to obtain a resource pack, call the Papyrus office on 01282 432555.


Some possible warning signs:

* Missing lectures or deadlines

* A change in behaviour

* Signs of acute anxiety including fear of failing

* Talking about suicide, maybe in a covert manner

* An ambivalence about and/or dread of the future

* Speaking about settling their affairs

* Self-harming

Some tips on what to say and do:

* Familiarise yourself with the support services available

* Trust your instincts about a student

* Listen to what they are saying; take it seriously

* Do not criticise or be judgmental

* Ask their permission to involve parents, friends and/or student support services

* Give information about where they can get help

* Suggest that someone goes with them to get help

* Follow it up to ascertain whether they kept the appointment

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