Train all university staff in suicide prevention, says guidance

Universities UK responds to growing public concern about number of undergraduates taking their own lives

September 6, 2018
Brain with cogs
Source: iStock/nambitomo

All higher education staff who work with students should be trained in how to identify and intervene with learners at risk of suicide, according to new guidance issued by Universities UK.

Academics and professional staff are covered by the recommendation, which responds to growing public concern about the number of undergraduates taking their own lives. Regular refresher training is recommended.

The document, produced with Papyrus, a national charity dedicated to preventing youth suicide, also urges universities to identify and train a team to support students who are having mental health crises, and to publicise the unit’s existence.

Other recommendations include using alert systems to identify students who are struggling, for example, if they are not engaging with academic work, and establishing strong partnerships with NHS mental health teams.

Universities should also review their rules around whether parents or family members can be informed if students are struggling, and should restrict access to locations and materials that can be used for suicide, the document says.

At least 95 students killed themselves during the 2016-17 academic year, according to estimates from the Office for National Statistics. Several suicides have been reported at the University of Bristol in recent years, including Ben Murray, whose father James spoke at the UUK conference in Sheffield on 5 September.

“Our son Ben was among the two-thirds of sudden deaths involving students not previously known to support services,” Mr Murray said. “We sincerely hope that the number of sudden deaths will reduce over time, but hope is not a strategy, and that’s why this guidance is so important.”

Earlier this year, universities minister Sam Gyimah said that higher education institutions must be able to inform parents if students are struggling with life-threatening mental health issues. Plans for a new mental health charter for universities are also being drawn up.

Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England and chair of UUK’s mental health in higher education advisory group, said: “We urge university leaders to work with their student support services to develop a strategy that focuses on preventing, intervening, and responding to suicide as part of an overall mental health strategy.

“Students and staff must be at the centre of this, and senior leadership within universities must build on their relationships with local authorities and the NHS to achieve real change.”

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