Study reports instances of 'inadequate' support for staff and students after suicides

March 9, 2007

The levels of support that universities give to students, parents and staff in the aftermath of a student suicide range from excellent to "woefully inadequate," according to a new report.

The first in-depth study on student suicide reports instances of students, staff and families feeling left unsupported in their distress after a death. It offers only a few examples of effective working between staff at university and those in the National Health Service.

University staff described strong feelings of shock and loss, but their needs were not always recognised and accommodated, according to the study, Responses and Prevention in Student Suicide . In some cases, students felt they had received little or no support from their university after a bereavement, although others had positive experiences.

Researchers at the University of Central Lancashire and King's College London studied 20 student suicides in the UK between May 2000 and June 2005. Three quarters occurred during periods of transition towards the start or end of the academic year.

Lead author Nicky Stanley, professor of social work at UCLan, said that institutions needed to review their availability to students at these key transitional periods.

She said: "These can be periods when the normal pattern of study and friendship that may have sustained young people are dropping away and students feel they are facing a period where they have to make difficult decisions. Some students felt trapped and were confused and anxious about the next step. For these young people, suicide seems to have been a 'way out'.

"I think higher education institutions have done well in terms of offering students support during induction or exam periods, but periods of vulnerability may extend beyond these times."

In two cases, students who committed suicide had been influenced by the suicide of a close friend. The report says the vulnerability of young people close to a suicide must be acknowledged, and universities and colleges have a particular role to play in watching out for those likely to be affected.

Many students were concerned about the stigma that is associated with using mental health services, and the report identified reluctance by students to contact and use the university and NHS support services.

In four cases, students had conveyed their distress to tutors or supervisors, and in three tutors had been proactive in referring students to counselling services.

Professor Stanley said academic staff also needed to be aware of the risk factors and use these as indicators of concern.

She said: "Academic staff need to know when there is sufficient concern to refer the student to specialist services."

There was no evidence of formal mental health problems in nearly a third of students who died.

Half had a history of disrupted or failing academic careers, and fear of failure was a recurring theme. Other risk factors included a tendency for perfectionism, alcohol and substance misuse, and relationship problems.

Following a death, the majority of staff interviewed for the report said they had not received formal support from their university. The report calls for staff support after a student suicide to be recognised and accommodated.

Professor Stanley said: "Staff who had known the student were often strongly affected and were sometimes required to take responsibility in managing the aftermath, which could create conflict between personal feelings and their professional role. Some anticipated blame.

"Very few had been offered any support by the university, and some said they would have liked to be given this opportunity," she added.

Anne Parry, chair of the charity Papyrus, which commissioned the report, lost her son to suicide while he was on a year out from university.

She said: "We hope that this research will encourage universities to revisit their procedures, particularly the process after a student dies.

"Information needs to be readily accessible. It is equally important that listeners - whether friends or university staff - know how to respond to a young person in distress."


The report shows some feel unsupported in the wake of suicide.

* "Nobody ever asked us how we were, if we needed help. No one ever asked us if we needed anything."Student

* "I should have been offered support. I spoke to people about it, but I didn't get anything back from that." Tutor

* "I had no idea how the family would feel about me because they knew he'd been seeing me. I didn't know if they would feel I was in some way to blame." Student support staff

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