Most UK universities do not know how many of their students die by suicide

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On the eve of an official report into suicides among higher education students, an investigation by NationalWorld reveals most UK universities have no record of the number of students who take their own lives

More than half of the UK’s universities do not know how many of their students take their own lives, NationalWorld can reveal.

While some simply keep no records, many pointed out that coroners are under no obligation to tell them if one of their students dies by suicide, our investigation found. The findings raise questions about whether universities can know if their support services are adequate, with the National Union of Students warning of a “student mental health crisis”.

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59% of universities said they did not hold figures on the number of student suicides 59% of universities said they did not hold figures on the number of student suicides
59% of universities said they did not hold figures on the number of student suicides

The union said it was “deeply concerned” about the issue of suicide in higher education.

A spokesperson said: “Students are burdened with anxiety, feeling overlooked by those in power, and unsupported in addressing the financial difficulties that compound the student mental health crisis. Students have been campaigning for university welfare services to improve for many years now, and although we’ve seen additional funding for institutions as a result of our efforts, there is still progress to be made.”

Universities UK, which represents the sector, said: “Universities want to learn from each avoidable student death to improve the ways that we work with statutory services to manage risk.”

It said it was working with the suicide prevention charities Papyrus and Samaritans on new guidance for universities on what to do after a student takes their own life, due to be published this summer.

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A spokesperson said it would be interested in discussing whether coroners could notify a university as standard if one of their students died by suicide.

The spokesperson said: “We would definitely be open to exploring this with coroners and public health authorities and how it could work in practice.”

But the Ministry of Justice appeared less keen, saying coroners were “already obliged to issue a Prevention of Future Deaths report if they identify any circumstances that need addressing”.

“This report is sent to anyone involved that could take appropriate action, including universities,” a spokesperson said.

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In Scotland, sudden or unexplained deaths are investigated by procurators fiscal rather than coroners.

A spokesperson for the service said: “If a Fatal Accident Inquiry is held a university may be notified, if the circumstances dictate.”

Natasha Abrahart, 20, was described as “hard-working and high-achieving”Natasha Abrahart, 20, was described as “hard-working and high-achieving”
Natasha Abrahart, 20, was described as “hard-working and high-achieving”

Earlier this month, a court found the University of Bristol discriminated against a student who took her own life before an oral exam after suffering from crippling anxiety.

“Hard-working and high-achieving” physics student Natasha Abrahart, 20, was found dead in her flat in April 2018, the day before she was due to take part in a group presentation in a 329-seat lecture theatre.

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Her parents Robert and Margaret had sued the university, claiming it failed to deliver on its duties to their daughter under the Equalities Act. The university was ordered to pay Ms Abrahart’s parents £50,000 in damages for failing to accommodate her mental health disability or make reasonable adjustments to the way it assessed their daughter.

Mrs Abrahart, a retired psychological wellbeing practitioner, called on the university to apologise, and “finally take its head out of the sand and recognise that now is the time for change”.

A University of Bristol spokesperson said the “whole university community has been deeply affected by Natasha’s tragic death”, adding: “Given the significant impact this decision could have on how all higher education providers support their students, we are reviewing the decision carefully, including whether to appeal.”

NationalWorld sent Freedom of Information requests to all UK universities asking how many of their students had died by suicide since 2018. Of the 114 which replied, 67 (59%) said they did not hold this information.

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Five universities refused to divulge the figures. The responses from the remaining 42 universities revealed records of at least 120 students having taken their own lives since 2018.

The investigation comes on the eve of an update to a major national report into the issue of student suicides across England and Wales by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

A previous study by the ONS, covering the period July 2001 to July 2017, painstakingly matched student death records with coroners’ court records to calculate the national suicide rate among university students.

It found that while the suicide rate was lower among university students than among the wider population of the same age, male students were at greater risk than their female classmates. An updated version of this study is due to be published on Tuesday.

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Ged Flynn, chief executive of youth suicide prevention charity Papyrus, said: “Many people inside and outside of education settings will find themselves supporting a loved one who may be struggling with thoughts of suicide. This can be a very difficult situation to face, many people will find this challenging and they need to know professional help and support is available.”

Help is on hand for anyone affected by this issue:

  • Papyrus offers support and advice to young people up to 35 years. Contact Papyrus HopelineUK on 0800 068 4141, text 07860 039967 or email [email protected].

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