OfS releases new suicide prevention guidance

The Office for Students’ topic briefing on suicide prevention has been welcomed as a “valuable set of resources” by universities minister, Michelle Donelan

The independent regulator for higher education in England has published new guidance on helping suicide prevention among students.

The topic briefing released by the Office for Students (OfS) sets out approaches to take in supporting students potentially at risk of taking their own lives, alongside examples of best practice among HE institutions and links to a range of resources and training materials.

“Every death by suicide is a tragedy, and has a profound impact on family and friends, staff and students,” said chair of the OfS, Lord Wharton. “This briefing provides practical resources, and shares some of the important suicide prevention work being done by universities.

“The OfS will continue to work closely with universities and colleges, student representatives and organisations involved in suicide prevention, with the aim of ensuring that all higher education providers have a clear and robust plan for preventing and responding to incidents of student suicide.”

It’s critical we support student mental health in every way – universities minister, Michelle Donelan

Between 2000-01 and 2016-17, the number of students who died by suicide was 1,330, according to the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures quoted in the briefing. Although striking, the total represents a significantly lower suicide rate among students than those of similar age in the population as a whole.

Suicide prevention in HE has become an increasingly high profile issue in the last few years, and was the subject of a recent roundtable co-hosted by the universities minister, Michelle Donelan, and the new president of Universities UK, Professor Steve West.

The June event brought together a wide range of stake holders – government departments, sector bodies, charities, higher education providers and bereaved family members – with the aim of stimulating discussion on understanding the issues at hand and identifying how best to support suicide prevention in the future.

“It’s critical we support student mental health in every way,” said Donelan, “which is why we have asked the Office for Students to allocate £15 million for student mental health this academic year, and invested in Student Space, a dedicated student mental health and wellbeing platform which provides vital support to students at university.”


From the archive: Students and staff at the University of Wolverhampton present their award-winning suicide prevention project, Three Minutes to Save a Life, to a panel of health experts reviewing the wellbeing of NHS workers


Other findings in the briefing include:

  • The rate of suicide for female students was significantly lower than for male peers
  • Groups identified as being at particularly at higher risk of suicide include those who have experienced bereavement, LGBTQ+ people, asylum seekers and refugees, those who have experienced trauma, people with a pre-existing mental health condition, or those with underlying health conditions.
  • Only one in three people who die by suicide had been in contact with mental health services within the previous 12 months

The new guidance is accompanied by a blog jointly attributed to West and Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the OfS.

“We urge everyone working and studying in higher education to read the advice set out in the topic briefing,” it reads, “and consider whether the approaches outlined in the examples may work effectively in their own university or college.”

Advice includes ensuring suicide prevention work involves the whole university or college community, with senior leaders taking ownership of suicide prevention strategies. The briefing also calls on universities and colleges to ensure that student mental health is a strategic priority, and for students to be actively and appropriately involved in the development of approaches.

“After the tragedy of a suicide, it is important to openly engage and systematically review what happened with all relevant individuals – including bereaved family and friends – and organisations, both within higher education providers and the wider community,” say West and Millward.

“We call on universities and colleges to draw on these practical examples and guidance to improve their approaches. The guidance and examples demonstrate the critical role of senior leaders in making this a strategic priority within universities and colleges.”

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