When going gets tough

December 22, 1995

Don Foster MP, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, wrote to university vice chancellors and principals on October 30 enclosing a survey based on research he had conducted over the summer on levels of stress and suicide among students which, he claimed, revealed the importance of student support and counselling and the increasing difficulty of current provision meeting the growing demand.

With all due respect to Mr Foster, his "research" is flawed. This may not matter in the rough-and-tumble of political point-scoring which (as George Walden has had the courage to state loudly and clearly) disfigures our public life; in universities, however, the word "research" ought not to be used so lightly. If anyone in my field attempted to publish a paper like Mr Foster's , it would (rightly) not get past the first hurdle of the journal's academic referees.

I do not wish to appear callous, and although, as John Donne memorably put it, every premature death diminishes us all, Mr Foster's figure of 32 suicides out of a sample student population in 1993/94 of 329,606 cannot be deemed statistically significant. There will be as many factors behind these figures as there are individuals concerned: money worries, of course, but also personal tragedies.

The giveaway is in the middle of Mr Foster's letter to the vice chancellors and principals. There he concedes that "the rate of suicide at university is lower than in the rest of the age group, which in plain English means that students, albeit to a lesser extent, follow the general trend among young people to kill themselves more frequently now than in the past. No one seems to be interested in finding out why the young might wish to take their own lives; all one gets is the knee-jerk call for more counselling and more counsellors, ie for throwing money at the problem, which means diverting resources from elsewhere in a cash-strapped system.

As a cultural historian, I can offer some elements of a possible explanation for the rise in suicides among the age-group, though I would not grace them with the term "research". However, for what they are worth, here are my suggestions:

* the virtually universal disappearance of religious belief (people who believe in God will be less likely to kill themselves because they will hope to be rewarded in heaven for life's misfortunes)

* marital and family breakdown, coupled with the almost complete disappearance of traditional extended clan systems (people who invest all their emotional resources in an exclusive relationship are particularly vulnerable when their partner dies or deserts them)

* the end of full employment and the ensuing realisation that job-for-life security will never return

* well-founded anxieties about the future of a world in which political instability, environmental damage and birth-rates out of control are threats of such magnitude that they make even the nuclear stalemate of the Cold War seem like a golden age, let alone the world of order and peace portrayed in such hugely influential costume dramas as Pride and Prejudice.

On the last point, what no one in the caring professions seems prepared to admit is that in some circumstances suicide may be a rational and indeed courageous way to behave. People sometimes, quite sensibly from their point of view, arrive at the same bitter conclusion as Hamm in Samuel Beckett's Endgame: "you're on earth, there's no cure for that". So no one should be unduly surprised if they decide that they are no longer prepared to put up with it.

The great French dramatist Henry de Montherlant shot himself in 1972 at the age of 76 because he was going blind: as a man of letters he knew that he could not live without the use of his eyes. More recently the eminent French philosopher Gilles Deleuze followed suite. Both men were atheists who preferred to die at a time of their own choosing rather than wait for a higher power (in which they did not in any case believe) to make the decision for them. Socrates, Cato and Seneca would have understood them but not, alas, the worthy but shallow people who undertook this so-called research.

John Fletcher

Professor of European literature

University of East Anglia

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