Research Will Give a Deeper Understanding of Student Suicide

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In recent years a host of reports have suggested the mental health of the UK’s student population has been rapidly deteriorating. But whilst surveys produce statistics that hint at the scale of the problem, there is still comparatively little academic res

Now the University of Worcester is undertaking work to develop a deeper understanding of student suicide through two funded PhD studentships. The research currently underway at Worcester will provide invaluable insights that could help to shape positive preventative action and support across the higher education sector.

Chantal Vinyard is undertaking research, co-funded by the James Wentworth-Stanley Memorial Fund, to explore the prevention and response strategies currently in place across the sector.

“Suicide is still not widely talked about in relation to the student population,” Chantal said, “which is surprising when you consider suicide is the leading cause of death amongst 15 to 24 year-olds in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and the second in Scotland. Unfortunately, the relative silence on this issue just helps to reinforce the stigma that still persists when someone has died by suicide.”

“I’ve been really surprised by how little academic attention there has been on student suicide,” she added. “There are only seven papers on the subject that have been published in peer-reviewed journals in the UK, and there’s very little statistical data available to give an accurate estimate of the true incidence of student suicide in higher education across the UK.”

Whilst Chantal’s work considers prevention, Hilary Causer’s PhD comes at the issue from the other side. “My PhD research is concerned with postvention - what happens after a student suicide, what can be done, in a supportive way, to help those affected,” she said. “University staff are often part of wider networks of connected individuals who can be adversely affected following a suicide.”

The existing surveys and reports point towards a problem that is growing rapidly. In 2015, a survey by the National Union of Students revealed that almost 80% of students had experienced mental health problems, and a third had admitted to having suicidal thoughts. Similarly, a survey of student services leaders in 2015 showed that 80% felt their services had observed a significant rise in students reporting mental health concerns compared to the previous year, whilst HEFCE estimates that the number of students declaring they have a mental health problem has risen by 132% in four years.

“Postvention is an often overlooked but vital part of the picture,” Hilary said. “A student suicide can start a downward spiral for those who are left behind, a negative chain of events that once set in motion can cause considerable consequences and further potential loss. Quality postvention work can help to arrest this.”

“Both Chantal and I hope to give a voice to those whose lives have been impacted by suicide, and to help reduce the stigma that still seems to attach itself to these deaths,” Hilary added. “We hope to disseminate our research as widely as possible. By making our research visible, we hope people will relate to what they see, feel less inhibited themselves, and through this mechanism, we might help to reduce the stigma.”
The University of Worcester has been pioneering multi-agency approaches to the question of student suicide for several years now.

Professor Jo Smith, Professor of Early Intervention and Psychosis, said: “Our Suicide Safer initiative brings together the perspectives and expertise of staff from across the University, as well as external partners including Worcestershire County Council, Worcestershire Health and Care NHS Trust, Samaritans and Community First to pioneer a new, collaborative approach to supporting student mental health and preventing student suicide.

“We know that student mental health is a complex issue that requires a wide-ranging and multi-faceted response, and that is why we emphasize the need for a broad base of partners working together to tackle this issue. The work of Chantal and Hilary is a crucial part of this picture, and it will bring invaluable insight to an area that is still massively under-represented in the research sphere.”