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The suicide rate among university students in England and Wales may be lower than previously thought but still appears to be higher than it was about a decade ago, new statistics suggest.
According to new data from the Office for National Statistics, the number of deaths by suicide was 4.4 per 100,000 students over the period 2012-13 to 2016-17 compared with 11.6 per 100,000 people in the general population.
This gap is closer when comparing young people of a similar age, but still significantly higher for the general population: for instance the suicide rate was estimated to be 2.8 per 100,000 for students aged 20 and under compared with 6.7 generally.
It is the first time that data have looked specifically at students in higher education by matching statistics on suicide with records held by the Higher Education Statistics Agency on those attending university.
As a result, the statistics show a lower absolute number of suicides than previous estimates, which also would have included other students such as those in further education. For instance, previous ONS data have suggested at least 130 students took their own life each year from 2014 to 2016, a figure that is below 100 in the new data.
Earlier this year, an analysis of government figures by researchers at the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention suggested the student suicide rate in the UK had overtaken that of young people in the general population. However, at the time the ONS cautioned against the figures, which were based on its previous estimates on student suicide.
The new data do show, though, that the suicide rate among university students in England and Wales was higher in the last few years (4.7 deaths per 100,000 students) than about a decade ago (2.6 deaths per 100,000 students in 2007-08).
But the ONS says that “the small numbers per year make it difficult to identify statistically significant differences” and also points out that the highest estimated suicide rate for students in higher education was 5.2 per 100,000 in 2004-05.
The data do also appear to show that, although male students are much more likely to take their own life than female students, women represent a higher proportion of suicides among those at university compared with the general population.
From 2001 to 2017, 34 per cent of recorded suicides among university students were women, a figure that is 23 per cent for the general population.
John de Pury, assistant director of policy at Universities UK, said the new data release was “the most comprehensive data we have on the rate of suicide among university students”.
“Although there is a lower rate of student suicide among university students in England and Wales compared with the general population of similar ages, there is no room for complacency here. This remains an urgent challenge for universities and society,” he said.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said the increasingly open debate about student mental health meant that it could no longer be described as an “invisible issue”.
“We know far more about how to support students than we did and universities have made many improvements. But we still need to spread best practice throughout the sector and to adopt a ‘whole university’ approach, where positive action to support student mental health affects all facets of university life,” he said.