Suicides among the bright young things of Oxford and Cambridge attract a great deal of media attention, but are the rates in fact any higher than for students elsewhere? Claire Sanders reports
In 1996 the Samaritans issued a briefing note on student suicide. "Somewhat inevitably, there is a media fascination with 'Oxbridge' suicides which attract a great deal of attention," the note commented.
"Other student suicides may attract local attention."
But why is an Oxbridge student's death more noteworthy than other deaths? Are there proportionally more suicides at Oxford and Cambridge? And is the focus on the tragic deaths of "bright young things" obscuring levels of despair and suicide elsewhere?
Gathering information on student suicide, whether in further education or higher education, is extremely difficult. Numbers are likely to be underestimates as coroners are reluctant to bring in a verdict of suicide if there is any doubt about a person's intent.
For students, the exercise is made more complicated as the Office of National Statistics (ONS) codes people by their last paid job in the first instance. Many mature students are therefore mis-coded and even school-leaver entrants to university are sometimes classified under their part-time job.
Vice-chancellors are notoriously reluctant to release figures on student deaths. Last March Chris O'Sullivan, disabilities officer for the National Union of Students Scotland, compiled a report on student suicide. It was presented to the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals as part of a university suicide intervention initiative supported by ten voluntary organisations, including the Samaritans and Parents for the Prevention of Youth Suicide.
It concluded that universities and colleges need to be more open about the risk of suicide and self-harm to overcome the stigma attached to seeking help.
Mr O'Sullivan wants the same openness as there is about meningitis: "Every student in the country knows about meningitis, but it is my belief that far more students commit suicide."
In December the CVCP and
the Standing Conference of Principals responded to the report and agreed to fund research into
student suicides, to be carried
out at University College, Chichester.
Tony Bruce, policy director at the CVCP, says: "This should
produce the first definitive
figures on student suicide and deliberate self-harm. We want to use this database to project future trends and identify common factors. The underlying objective is to provide help and support to institutions to encourage good practice."
The Higher Education Funding Council for England has also tried to address the issue by funding a number of projects on the mental health needs of students. These are also aimed at developing good practice.
The extent of student suicide
is even less clear in further
education than in higher education, where there are opposing views on the extent of the problem.
According to the Further Education Funding Council and
the Association of Colleges, further education students rarely commit suicide. The FEFC is producing guidance on the issue - but only for its few residential colleges. Linda Butler, director of communications at the AoC says: "I have been here for two years and I have received nothing from colleges wanting information on this. It is very unusual for a further education student to commit suicide - which is not to say it doesn't happen."
Fred Sherman, health and safety director at the AoC, cannot recall a suicide by a further education student. "There are two major differences between the further and higher education sectors," he says.
"Students in further education are studying from home and those aged 16 to 18 do not have access to alcohol in colleges."
He argues that welfare and tutorial systems are well developed in colleges and provide a safety net for students.
He does acknowledge, however, that "loads" of people commit suicide at home and many of these will be college students. The fact that a higher education student's death is closely associated with an institution and a further
education student's death is not, could obscure the extent of the problem.
Bob Hughes is student services manager at Weston College in Avon and a member of the National Association of Managers of Student Services, which represents about 80 per cent of further education colleges. He agrees with Mr Sherman that pastoral and support services are well developed in further education, not least because the colleges are serious about tackling drop-out rates of between 15 and 20 per cent.
"I am racking my brains to think of the last time a student committed suicide," he says.
"When a student drops out of further education it does not have the same emotional impact on them as a student at Oxbridge dropping out. For the Oxbridge student their whole value system is called into question, as well as the approval of their parents. For a further education student, the attitude is more that they have found something better to do."
Alison Weisselberg is the Samaritans' national coordinator for young people. She argues that the sort of statistical analysis that is now taking place in higher education should also occur in further education. "My belief would be that students in further education are at higher risk than students in higher education."
She argues that counselling and welfare services are underfunded in further education colleges.
"Those working in these services are trying to help people from a diverse range of backgrounds, many doing courses without the support of their families."
John Parsons is head of the A-level programme at Barnet College, London. He is an ex-director of the Samaritans and has worked as London representative for the Samaritans. Last year he contacted more than 40 further education colleges in the London area and found the welfare and support services to be under considerable strain.
"Many said they were dealing with students who felt suicidal," he says. "I have come across the case of a part-time student trying to smuggle chemicals out of a lab to kill herself with."
He agrees with Ms Weisselberg that further education colleges attract students from a diverse range of backgrounds, many of them troubled ones.
"We may not know about the problems of a student who is only dipping into a course for two or three hours in the evening," he says.
The statistics that are available on suicide indicate that both higher and further education would be well advised to take the issue seriously.
In 1995 Liberal Democrat MP Don Foster, then education spokesman, gathered information from 84 universities (not all of it complete). He found that in the academic year 1983-84, the number of suicides was four out of a student population of 167,000, a ratio of 2.4 per 100,000.
By 1989-90 the ratio had risen to 4.1 and by 1993-94 it
had risen to 9.7. He argued that widening participation in higher education, without a corresponding increase in funding, was endangering the health of students.
However, the Samaritans are cautious about these statistics, arguing that the numbers were so small as to be statistically insignificant.
What the Samaritans are alarmed about is the significant rise in suicides among young people generally, particularly young men. A briefing note produced last year by Su Ray, research and development manager, made a number of key points:
There has been a demographic shift in the age profile of suicide over the past 20 years. Up until the early 1980s, suicide rates (deaths by suicide per 100,000 of the population) increased with age for both males and females. But by 1997 the age profile
had radically altered, showing a peak in suicide rates for males in the 25 to 34-year age group, and peaking in females aged between 35 and 54. "Suicide today is much more prevalent in younger adults," the Samaritans concluded.
The suicide rate among young men aged between 15 and 24 years had risen "alarmingly" over the 1980s and 1990s in the United Kingdom. Despite an apparent downturn in this trend since 1993, the 1997 rate was still 21 per cent higher than that of 1987. By contrast, the suicide rate for young women aged between 15 and 24 was four per 100,000, a quarter of the rate of their
male peers. Seven hundred and sixty-six people aged between 15 and 24 died by suicide in the UK in 1997, and 103 in the Republic of Ireland. In total this was over two young suicides a day - and over 80 per cent were by young men.
Among those aged 15-19, 12
per cent of all deaths were suicides in 1997 and the difference between the sexes was not so large. "In comparison with the general population where suicide accounts for 1 per cent of all deaths proportionally, suicide is a very important cause of death in young people," Ms Ray concluded.
Ms Ray also noted an increase in self-harm or parasuicide among the young. Young women and girls (aged between 15 and 19) made the highest number of suicide attempts each year. But there had recently been a particularly large increase in the rate of self-harm by young men and boys aged 15-24, whose rates had more than doubled since the mid-1980s.
"A conservative estimate is that there are 19,000 cases of attempted suicide by adolescents (aged 10 to 19 years) each year
in England and Wales, which
is one attempt every 30 minutes," Ms Ray calculated.
This increase in the number of young suicides and attempted suicides suggests that universities and colleges need to be particularly vigilant.
The Samaritans warn: "Among young people the percentage change in alcohol consumption has the single highest correlation with changes in suicide rates." Approximately one in three adolescents who die by suicide is intoxicated at the time of death, and a further number are under the influence of drugs.
The Samaritans also argue that suicidal young men are eight times more likely than their non-suicidal counterparts to be living alone, in care or hostels or without a family structure.
The ONS confirms this. "We suggest that the increasing
numbers of men remaining single or becoming divorced may explain up to one half of the increase in suicides observed between the early 1970s and late 1980s. This age group of men has also been affected by high unemployment rates, exposure to armed combat, increasing risk of imprisonment, an increase in misuse of alcohol and other drugs, and the HIV virus. There is little evidence of a rise in mental illness," it says.
It also warns against drawing a too simplistic correlation between the HIV virus and suicide. "When age-specific rates were examined by regional health authority
the increase in the number of
suicides since 1984 did not correlate with the areas most affected by the HIV epidemic." It is also true to say that working class men are more at risk from suicide than upper class men (see box).
The rise in suicide among vulnerable young men should not be used as an argument that universities catering to the more affluent do not have a problem with student suicide.
Liz Maudsley, policy director for further education at Skill, the national bureau for students with disabilities, says: "If the government wants to widen participation then colleges will take more vulnerable students. Further education cannot afford to be complacent about those at risk from suicide."
YOUNG MEN IN DESPAIR
Earlier this year the Samaritans published a report called Young Men Speak Out. It was prompted by the statistic that two young men aged 15-24 kill themselves every week. From a national survey of more than 1,300 young men, the Samaritans found the following:
67 per cent of suicidal young men say they have nowhere to turn for emotional support
Suicidal young men are four times more likely to smoke and ten times more likely to take an illegal drug to relieve stress
More than one in three suicidal young men would "smash something up" instead of talking about their feelings
Fewer than one in five young men asks his father for emotional support
Seven per cent of depressed and suicidal young men have experienced bullying
Sixty-nine per cent of suicidal young men have experienced violence from an adult
Half of suicidal young men have been in trouble with the police compared with 17 per cent of non-suicidal young men.
MALE SUICIDES BY CLASS
The standardised mortality ratio is a measure of how much more or less likely a person is to die in the study population than someone of the same age and sex in the standard population.Deaths from suicide in social classes based on occupation are compared with the standard population of England and Wales. The SMR is the ratio of the number of deaths in the social class to the expected number of deaths in that class. An SMR of 100 means the odds of dying from suicide are the same in both the social class and in England and Wales. An SMR of greater than 100 means individuals in that class have higher mortality from suicide than the population of England and Wales.
Standardised mortality ratios,1991-93, for men aged 20-64:
Managerial and technical: 63
Skilled (non-manual): 87
Skilled (manual): 96
Partly Skilled: 107
England and Wales average: 100 Total number of deaths by suicide: 9,725.