Parents alarmed at suicide risk

May 1, 1998

EXAM time is almost upon us, bringing with it the sleepless nights long associated with cramming. Yet academic pressure is only one of the difficulties students face at university and college.

Leaving home for the first time brings its own stresses. Homesickness, making new friends, financial worries and the temptations of alcohol and drugs can all take their toll. Most cope, but for some the strain becomes overwhelming.

Papyrus is a new organisation formed by parents who have lost a child through suicide. In three weeks it received about 100 calls. It was not so much the numbers that surprised members, as the fact that almost three-quarters were from mothers concerned about the welfare of their sons at university.

"Lots of parents of students are very worried and they have good cause," said Anne Parry, whose son took his life when a student.

She is sceptical about university pastoral care and cites complacency as one of the main dangers. "My son's academic tutor couldn't speak English very well," she recalled. "He would never have gone to him for help, obviously."

There may be systems in place, but does anyone in higher education really care? Is anyone looking out for the early warning signs? Ms Parry doubts it. "It seems to me some universities do not do enough," she said.

Her son had stopped attending lectures but no one had asked why. "Much of the onus is on the individual to tell someone if they are in trouble but they will only tell if they are confident of getting an appropriate response."

Four times more men than women commit suicide in the United Kingdom every year. Women make far more attempts at suicide than men, but men are more likely to die because they tend to use more violent methods.

Suicides are rarely recorded as such by coroners courts, which will often seek to protect the feelings of the families. As a result suicide figures are likely to show only the tip of the iceberg.

Figures produced two years ago by the Liberal Democrats education team calculated that the rate of student suicides had risen fourfold in the decade to 1993/94.

Gill Kester of Chichester College of Higher Education is setting up a database of suicides across higher education. "The gender imbalance is very interesting because as male suicides are increasing in this country, female figures are falling," she said.

Jean Kerr, founder of Papyrus, surveyed 79 families to identify early warning signals that parents or tutors can watch out for. "Ideally we need to identify the type of personality that is at risk rather than waiting until a depression or other crisis occurs," she said.

She found that three-quarters of young people do not visit their doctor before to a suicide so another way must be found to reach them.

In her study, more than half the suicide victims were high academic achievers. In many cases the final trigger was a change of situation such as a new job or starting at university. After talking to so many concerned parents of students Ms Kerr is convinced that for more vulnerable students, studying at a university near to home would be a safer option than all the upheaval of starting a new life.

"Often those at risk of suicide are the highly intelligent, more sensitive individuals and they need extra support. They may get to university and start a downward spiral."

Signs to look out for, according to Ms Kerr, are unsettled students wanting to change courses or those simply missing lectures frequently. Many times families have discovered only when it is too late that their child has been shutting themselves away and showing signs of distress while at university but no channels of communication exist.

Concerns for student confidentiality can get in the way of help. "A solution is for the student and university to sign a contract so that parents will be informed should difficulties occur," Ms Kerr said.

Michael Donohue, an expert on suicide at Hull University, agreed that the whole subject was fraught. "While the medical and legalistic model is that the individual was imbalanced and irrational, at that moment in time suicide may have been the most logical way forward," he said.

Suicide is rarely a spur-of-the-moment action, he added. One way of assessing the level of risk is by confronting suicide head on and asking individuals at risk: have you ever wanted to die?

All universities offer their students emotional and other counselling services, and the National Union of Students said students were no more at risk than others in the same age group. "The support mechanisms in higher education are the best they will get in their life," said a spokeswoman.

Again Ms Parry is dubious. "What level of crisis intervention is actually in place? If a young person is suicidal they need to see someone now, not next week. This is the message the university policy makers need to take on board."

Papyrus, the Parents Association for the Prevention of Young Suicide, tel 01706 214449.


* The Department of Health is aiming to reduce the number of deaths by suicide by at least 17 per cent by 2010, a reduction that would have saved 800 lives in 1996. Prevention of young suicides is seen as the key.

* According to the Office for National Statistics, unskilled men of working age are more than twice as likely to kill themselves as men in the overall population.

* A DoH breakdown of female mortality rates from suicide shows that women born in East Africa but living in England or Wales are more than twice as likely to commit suicide as Bangladeshi women. The next highest risk group is among women from Sri Lanka followed by Indians, English/Welsh-born women, Pakistani and Caribbean-origin women.

* In March, the government announced anti-suicide measures such as a pilot telephone helplinefor young men indistress; restrictions on paracetamol and aspirin package sizes; educating health and social care professionals about depression; plus an audit of "serious incidents".

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