This topic briefing discusses issues relating to suicide and mental health. If you are affected by any of the issues raised, there are services that can help:
- The Samaritans are open every day of the year, you can phone them for free on 116 123 or email [email protected] (response time: 24 hours)
- SHOUT 85258 is a free, confidential, 24/7 text messaging support service for anyone who is struggling to cope
- Mind, the mental health charity, offers support by phone at 0300 123 3393 or online
- The NHS mental health information and support.
As well as a tragedy for bereaved family and friends, the death of a student is likely to have a significant impact on a university or college community. In the case of death by suicide, this impact may well be profound.
Analysis on higher education student suicides in England and Wales
In 2018, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published an analysis produced from a dataset linking information from individual Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data on university students in England and Wales to the ONS mortality records. This is the most recent study published on suicide among higher education students by the ONS and the key findings from the data include:
The number of identified students in higher education who died by suicide between 2000-01 and 2016-17 was 1,330.
The rate of deaths by suicide in the higher education student population remained at 4.7 deaths per 100,000 students between the 12 months ending July 2015 and the 12 months ending July 2017. The number of suicides in the higher education population in the 12 months ending July 2017 was 95.
The rate of suicide for female students was significantly lower than the rate for male students. This was observed when looking at overall student suicides, as well as looking at the difference in studying part- or full-time, whether studying at undergraduate or postgraduate degree level, and the undergraduate year of study.
83 per cent of deaths by suicide (1,109) were among undergraduates and the remaining 17 per cent (221) were among postgraduates.
Analysis on higher education student suicides compared to the general population
The ONS data also analysed student deaths by suicide compared to the general population and found:
For each age group, the suicide rate was significantly higher in the general population than in the student population
For the 12 months ending July 2013 to the 12 months ending July 2016, higher education students made up approximately 37 per cent of the general population for those aged 20 years and under, 17 per cent in those aged 21 to 24 years, 6 per cent in those aged 25 to 29 years, and 2 per cent in those aged 30 years and over.
Risk factors associated with higher education students
Information presented in the following reports suggest possible risk factors associated with higher education students: Suicide Safer guidance, NCISH | Suicide by children and young people - NCISH (manchester.ac.uk) and Suicide and deliberate self-harm in Oxford University students over a 30-year period — Department of Psychiatry)
Factors that may increase student mental distress include difficulties with academic studies, financial problems, key transition points and broader social and cultural pressures.
Risk factors particularly associated with suicide are serious self-harm, alcohol and substance misuse, and health and psychological factors such as adverse life experiences and early childhood trauma, chronic medical pain, perfectionism, social alienation/isolation, interpersonal conflict and loss and feelings of entrapment and hopelessness.
Groups that have been identified as 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 last 12 months.
While it is possible to identify some of the risk factors for death by suicide, it is important to be aware that only 28 per cent of general population suicides were people who had been in contact with mental health services in the previous 12 months. Therefore, many of the students who may be at risk of suicide may not get in contact with university wellbeing or mental health services.
We use the following definitions in this topic briefing:
- Mental health conditions are clinically diagnosable. They may be more or less severe, and their treatment pathways vary depending on the condition.
- Mental ill health/poor mental health is a broader term describing mental distress that may or may not be related to a diagnosable mental health condition.
- Suicidal ideation, sometimes referred to as suicidal thoughts, is a term used to cover thoughts about wanting to take one’s own life. Plans and preparatory acts related to suicide might be included under suicidal ideation or may be referred to as suicidal intent.
- Suicidal behaviour is a term used to cover thoughts about suicide, suicide attempts and completed suicide.