Credit: Mike Labrum via Unsplash

Remembrance and prevention: why universities should record student suicides

By Michael Conway

Writer Michael Conway discusses the benefits of more universities recording student suicides.

CW: Suicide

In 2019, 15 Scottish universities were asked by investigative journalism team The Ferret, through the Freedom of Information Act, to reveal how many of their students had committed suicide in the previous three years. Responses showed that 14 out of the 15 universities stated that while they recorded student deaths, they did not keep a record of how many had died from suicide. The University of Stirling was the only one that had been recording student suicides since 2017 and confirmed that four had occurred in the previous three-year period.

This begged the question: if one university was keeping a record of suicides then why weren’t the others? There didn’t seem to be a unilateral explanation.

“…if one university was keeping a record of suicides then why weren’t the others?”

Heriot-Watt University claimed that this kind of information would only be shared on a “strictly confidential basis” and would not be made public. The University of Glasgow said it deliberately focused on providing support to the student’s family, rather than speculating on the cause of death as it “avoids causing additional distress to a family and the student community”.

Other universities highlighted practicalities preventing them from keeping a record, such as the information regarding a sudden death not always being passed on by the police, therefore making it difficult for them to verify the cause of a student’s death.

There seemed to be debate surrounding how the data could help universities and their students in the short and long term. Health researcher Karen Wetherall suggested it was “sensible” to record student suicides, noting it “would help institutions keep track of trends over time and identify if there are increases in suicide deaths”.

Some academics have suggested that little could be learned from the data, such as long-term risk factors behind student suicides, since the number of them is expected to be pretty low. But, if the universities don’t record their numbers, how can anyone speak with certainty about them being high or low?

” if the universities don’t record their numbers, how can anyone speak with certainty about them being high or low?”

There may be doubts about what can be extracted scientifically from a record of student suicides, but what it crucially does is acknowledge that there were students feeling hopeless and facing mental health difficulties whilst at university, which should undoubtedly be a key concern for institutions. It is not difficult to think of reasons why universities would be hesitant to have this kind of information made public: it could reflect that students were let down by university mental health services.

Only months after the University of Stirling’s suicide figures were published, the student publication Brig Newspaper ran a story discussing a spike in the number of suicides in the last two years, but that the figures should not be used to panic students or as a stick to needlessly beat a university’s reputation. The figures could, however, serve as an indicator as to where universities’ student support services may be failing. Although a student’s suicide could have nothing to do with the available support services at their university, it might have everything to do with them. What if it reveals that a student asked for help and raised concerns about their mental health but wasn’t given adequate support? In such a case, the recording of student suicides is essential. Any other incident involving the harm of students such as theft, rape, or assault, would be recorded for the purpose of showing that universities don’t shy away from problems on campus and that they want to learn from them.

If there is any doubt as to why having this data can make a difference, then take a look at the University of Bristol. In 2018, the institution commissioned a Suicide Prevention and Response Plan after it became aware of 13 possible suicides that may have occurred there since 2016. This plan meant that parents, whose children were believed to be struggling mentally, could be informed by the university with the intent of ensuring the student could also receive support from home. This is a concrete example of the benefits of recording student suicides, with the data informing this university’s policy and provoking the institution to act in the interest of their students.

If keeping a record so clearly helps then, even if it can only be done in a limited capacity, universities need to do it. Mental health should not be brushed under the carpet. 

See the original story by The Ferret below, published 2019.


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