New ONS figures part of government plan on HE suicide prevention

Publication of the latest figures on suicide rates in higher education follows the universities’ minister’s call for more regular data to help university leaders take better preventative action

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has published its first figures related to suicide in higher education since the government updated its approach to the issue last year.

June 2021 saw universities minister, Michelle Donelan, convene a roundtable of stakeholders – government departments, sector bodies, charities, higher education providers and bereaved family members – to help better understand the issues at hand and identify how best to support suicide prevention.

One of the outcomes from the meeting was Donelan’s asking the ONS to undertake more regular analysis of student suicide data to help university leaders better understand how to take effective preventative action.

Sixty-four deaths by suicide were recorded among HE students in England and Wales in the academic year ending 2020. That equates to a suicide rate of three per 100,000 students, significantly lower than the one recorded in the general population of a similar age.

While the rate is the lowest observed over the last four years, the small numbers per year mean it is difficult to single out any statistically meaningful differences.

What is more significant, and will likely have implications for policies on suicide prevention, is the figure relating to first year undergraduate males. Between 2017 and 2020, the group’s suicide rate of 7.8 deaths per 100,000 students was markedly higher than those studying in other years (4.3 deaths per 100,000).

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Other measures taken by Donelan in the wake of last year’s roundtable include requesting that the Office for Students allocate £15 million for student mental health this academic year, and asking university leaders to adopt and embed the UUK-led Suicide Safer Universities framework, setting out the steps to take to prevent suicide.

A survey of universities’ policies and practices on suicide prevention was launched, helping identify gaps where additional funding or support is needed, while the OfS invested £3.6 million in Student Space, a dedicated student mental health and wellbeing platform offering support – via one-to-one text, webchat, phone or email – to students at university.

“Behind every figure is an immeasurable tragedy; a family torn apart and loved ones whose grief can never fully heal,” said Donelan, as the new ONS figures were released.

“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. I encourage anyone who is struggling with their mental health to reach out – help is here for you.”

If you are struggling to cope, please call Samaritans for free on 116 123 or contact other sources of support, such as those listed on the NHS help for suicidal thoughts webpages. Support is available round the clock, every single day of the year, providing a safe place for anyone struggling to cope, whoever they are, however they feel, whatever life has done to them.

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