By Professor Jo Smith, Professor in Clinical Psychology and Suicide Safer Project Lead
By Ross Renton, Pro Vice Chancellor (Students) and Suicide Safer Project Chair
Student suicide is, thankfully, a rare phenomenon but when it occurs, its impact on friends, family and a University community can be devastating. Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures showed a rise of 50% between 2007 and 2011, from 75 to 112, despite the number of students as a whole increasing by only 14%. These figures across UK Universities may be relatively small but are likely to underestimate actual student deaths by suicide due to recording/reporting anomalies, such as students committing suicide away from University, outside of term time or once they have de-registered from University. Many University counselling and mental wellbeing services report seeing around 10% of their student population a year and this has been increasing at about 10% annually (BACP UC Survey, 2015). A recent NUS survey in December 2015 found that 78% of students reported having experienced a mental health problem over the last year; with over 33% having suicidal thoughts and with 33% not knowing where to access support.
At the University of Worcester, thankfully, incidents of student suicides are extremely rare. However, two and a half years ago, Professor David Green, Vice Chancellor, was asked by the then High Sheriff of Worcestershire, Nick Wentworth Stanley what the University of Worcester was specifically doing to prevent student suicide. In response, a multi-agency ‘Suicide Safer’ Project Group was established, led by Professor Jo Smith who had been recently appointed to the University Professoriate. A project team was brought together including members of the University Executive, representatives of local government from Worcestershire County Council Public Health, Worcestershire Health and Care NHS Trust and third sector organisations with interest and expertise in suicide prevention, including local Samaritans and Community First. A core principle of the Project has been collaboration and the importance of a multi-agency approach to successful mental health and suicide prevention efforts.
The Project Team identified three key intervention targets: Suicide Safer University, Suicide Safer City and Suicide Safer County and three key strands of work: Education of current students, future graduates, university staff, in contributing to “suicide safer” environments; Support for students and staff to maintain wellbeing, awareness and availability of early support services; risk identification and support to reduce risk; crisis support services in conjunction with local partner organisations; support for those affected by suicide and suicide survivors; Research including local audit and data collection, evaluation of project elements and a contribution to the understanding of suicide and suicide prevention through a programme of qualitative research University research resources.
We have worked closely with colleagues from the National Union of Students (NUS) and the student mental health charity Student Minds in a programme of work. This included the student suicide roundtable in December 2015 and a joint media campaign on this year’s University Mental Health and Wellbeing Day (March 3rd 2016) with the theme of #HeadsTogether, championing what we can do to support students and staff wellbeing and encouraging conversations about transforming the state of mental health at university. This included an article entitled ‘Student Mental Health: A new model for Universities’ which described our work at University of Worcester and was published online in the Guardian Higher Education Network on 3rd March 2016.
The University of Worcester is one of a small number of universities nationally with an identified suicide prevention strategy and we are working with other universities and national charitable organisations to support similar developments at other Universities. We have partnered closely with colleagues from the Universities of Wolverhampton, Ulster, York and Exeter on student suicide prevention activities, including practice development, training and research partnerships.
For further information about how you might become involved with the Suicide Safer Project work email Professor Jo Smith: email@example.com