Student suicides: UK universities call for more mental health funding as figures reveal those most at risk

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Work to reduce the number of students taking their own lives had been starting to see results before the pandemic hit, new figures show. But universities are now seeing much higher demand for student support services and have called for urgent government help.

Universities urgently need more funding to boost mental health support for students, the sector has warned.

Progress had been made in driving down the rate of student suicides before the coronavirus pandemic hit, new official figures show.

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But universities are now seeing “significant increased demand” for mental health support services, according to Universities UK, which represents 140 higher education institutions.

Universities say they are seeing much higher demand for student support servicesUniversities say they are seeing much higher demand for student support services
Universities say they are seeing much higher demand for student support services | NationalWorld

Its president, Professor Steve West, said: “We know that the pandemic has had a negative impact on student mental health and wellbeing and are seeing significant increased demand for student support services at our universities and NHS partners. Universities UK has called on the government to provide urgent additional mental health funding for universities and to commission student-facing NHS services, as set out in the NHS Long Term Plan.”

The National Union of Students warned students were facing a “mental health crisis”, worsened by the rising cost of living.

“Students are burdened with anxiety, feel overlooked by those in power, and are unsupported when it comes to addressing the financial difficulties that compound the student mental health crisis,” a spokesperson said.

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“Both universities and Government must do more to support vulnerable students. They must also put protections in place to prevent thousands more reaching crisis point. 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 so much progress to be made.”

A study published by the Office for National Statistics revealed the number of student suicides in England and Wales fell to an 11-year low of 64 in the 2019/20 academic year, which included the first Covid-19 lockdown.

However, the low number may partly be due to inquests delayed by the pandemic, it said.

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Higher education students in England and Wales had a significantly lower suicide rate compared with the general population of similar ages in the three years to July 2020. But the suicide rate was higher among male students than female students.

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By linking records of student deaths with the coroner’s inquests into the circumstances, the ONS found 319 students who died by suicide in the three years to July 2020.

Of these students, 202 (63%) were male and 117 (37%) were female. The median age at death was just 22. Male first-year undergraduate students had a significantly higher suicide rate compared with those studying in other years.

As with the general population, the rate of suicide increased as age increased. Students aged 30 years and over had the highest rate of suicide, the study found.

It comes after an investigation by NationalWorld found most universities do not know how many of their students die by suicide, with many institutions saying coroners wouldn’t routinely notify them.

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Minister for Higher and Further Education Michelle Donelan said: “Behind every figure is an immeasurable tragedy; a family torn apart and loved ones whose grief can never fully heal. On behalf of all those affected by this heart-breaking issue, I held a suicide prevention roundtable in June last year and asked the ONS to undertake more regular analysis of student suicide data.

“The information published gives government, universities and NHS trusts a clearer understanding of suicides in higher education, which will help improve vital prevention work. Protecting students’ mental health and wellbeing is deeply important to me and I know universities and their staff care as deeply as I do about preventing such tragedies. That is why in addition to commissioning this data, I have encouraged institutions to sign up to the University Mental Health Charter and to adopt the Safer Suicide Universities Framework – which supports universities by setting out steps they can take to prevent suicide.

“The Office for Students has also funded Student Space, a mental health hub for students which provides one-to-one text and web chat support. I encourage anyone who is struggling with their mental health to reach out – help is here for you.”

The Office for Students, the regulator for the higher education sector, said it had published a range of resources to help universities and colleges with their suicide prevention work.

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A spokesperson said: “Every life lost to suicide represents an individual tragedy. Our thoughts remain with the family and friends of all students who have taken their own life.

“Whilst these figures show a reduction in the number of deaths by suicide over the research period, we will continue to work with universities and colleges, student representatives and all organisations involved in suicide prevention to ensure that all universities have plans in place to reduce suicide and to help make sure that students facing mental health crisis are effectively supported.”

A spokesperson for the charity Samaritans said: “Every life lost to suicide is a tragedy that can be prevented. While this new data appears encouraging, it must be treated with caution due to late registrations.

“We know that it’s a very difficult time for young people - including students - who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. It’s vitally important that students who are struggling know support is available.”

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The ONS figures only relate to England and Wales. In Scotland, student suicides in 2020 reached their highest level in five years, separate figures show.

Thirty-nine people died by suicide in 2020 who had ‘student’ listed as their occupation, compared to 29 in 2016, figures obtained by NationalWorld from National Records of Scotland reveal.

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However, the low numbers involved mean trends should be interpreted with caution.

In Northern Ireland, there were 37 student suicides between 2016 and 2020. Twenty of these were male students and 17 were female, the figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency show.

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The figures counted anyone who had died by suicide who had ‘student’ listed as their occupation.

  • Help is available 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]. You can also call the Samaritans for free on 116 123, email them at [email protected], or visit samaritans.org to find your nearest branch.

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