Steep rise in student suicides must be tackled

Universities are right to re-examine the support in place for students in light of soaring suicide rates, says health secretary Jeremy Hunt

September 20, 2017
Solitary student on social media

With the initial adrenalin and excitement of freshers’ week starting to ebb, many first-year students will now be settling in to the everyday business of university life.

For the majority, it will be a rewarding and formative experience that will enrich their lives both intellectually and emotionally.  

It won’t be all plain sailing, of course. University life involves many new challenges, from coursework and exams to being away from home, to finding your place in new social circles and learning to live on a budget.  And inevitably some students find this very tough.

Last year, more than 15,000 first-year students at UK universities and colleges disclosed a mental health condition to their tutors or university support staff. Strikingly, that is a five-fold increase on the numbers 10 years ago.

That will partly be caused by higher student numbers and less taboo attached to talking about mental health – both very positive developments. But we also need to ask ourselves whether the pressures might actually be getting worse – driven, perhaps, by factors such as increased use of social media.

Mental health is now a leading cause of students failing to complete courses. The number of student suicides in England and Wales who died by suicide has nearly doubled since 2007, accounting for nearly 150 deaths last year.

Against a broader national trend of declining suicides, this is particularly tragic. But there is a lot that can be done.

Firstly, for those with pre-existing mental health conditions, we need to look much harder at the transition between children’s and adult services during adolescence and early adulthood. The gap between child and adolescent mental health services and adult mental health provision is a big structural weakness that continues to let down too many young people. NHS England is now funding a scheme to encourage these barriers to be broken down, which is an important first step.

Second, we need to look at the wide variations in mental health provision available for students. Universities UK has set up a task force to address this including NHS England, Public Health England, university support services, medical royal colleges and the National Union of Students. The objective must be much more consistent levels of care delivered wherever you go to university, including looking at commissioning and GP provision.

Third, we know when it comes to suicide you can make big improvements in prevention. This can only be done when you have accurate and reliable data – and we know sometimes the figures for student suicides can be understated if, for example, "student" is not recorded properly as someone’s occupation. So Universities UK, Public Health England and the ONS are now working with researchers from University of Worcester to encourage more accurate reporting of student suicides.  

It is vitally important that all 163 higher educational institutions work with the project team so that we can arrive at a better understanding of both the national picture and the circumstances around each individual tragedy – as the first step in setting up prevention programmes that can work so well in reducing adult suicides.

Finally, we need all universities to take a holistic approach. Mental health can’t be compartmentalised within an institution as part of – say – "pastoral services". Every part of the university environment, whether teaching culture or estates planning, whether social media policy or access to specialist mental health provision, all play a key part in preventing mental health crises and enhancing resilience.

So I hope the whole sector will embrace the Step Change Mental Health in Higher Education framework published by Universities UK, working with NHS England, Public Health England, university support services, medical royal colleges and the National Union of Students.

We’re lucky to have some of the finest institutions in the world judged on teaching and research capabilities. Let’s now become world class in our provision of mental health support too.

Jeremy Hunt MP is the secretary of state for health.

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