This topic briefing discusses issues relating to suicide and mental health. It does not constitute regulatory guidance. It is intended to help providers develop suicide prevention strategies at their university or college. 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 of higher education student suicides in England and Wales
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has published an analysis estimating suicide among higher education students in England and Wales from academic year ending 2017 to academic year ending 2020. This has been 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. The key findings from the data include:
The number of identified students in higher education who died by suicide between 2016-17 and 2019-20 was 319.
The rate of deaths by suicide in the higher education student population was 3.9 deaths per 100,000 students between academic year ending 2017 and academic year ending 2020. This is a slightly lower rate than previously observed in the 2018 ONS study, which reported 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 2020 was 64. This is equivalent to a rate of 3.0 deaths per 100,000 students. This is the lowest rate seen over the last four years, although the small numbers per year make it difficult to identify statistically significant differences
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.
First year undergraduate males had a statistically significantly higher suicide rate at 7.8 deaths per 100,000 students compared with those studying in other years (4.3 deaths per 100,000).
Analysis of higher education student suicides compared with the general population
The 2022 ONS data also analysed student deaths by suicide compared with the general population (which includes higher education students) and found:
The suicide rate was significantly higher in the general population than in the student population (12.5 deaths per 100,000 general population compared with 3.9 deaths per 100,000 student population).
The suicide rate for male students was 5.6 per 100,000 compared with 19.0 per 100,000 in the general male population. This is a greater difference than is seen in the female population, where the student rate was less than half that of the general population (2.5 per 100,000 compared with 6.0 per 100,000).
For the academic year ending 2017 to the academic year ending 2020, higher education student suicides made up approximately 12 per cent of all suicides in those aged 20 years and under, 7 per cent in those aged 21 to 24 years, 2 per cent in those aged 25 to 29 years and 1 per cent in those aged 30 years and over.
Risk factors associated with mental distress and suicide
Information presented in the following reports suggest possible risk factors associated with young people in the general population including higher education students:
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 among people under 25 in the general population are serious self-harm, alcohol and substance misuse and health and psychological factors. For students these psychological factors may include 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, asylum seekers and refugees, those who have experienced trauma, people with a pre-existing mental health condition or those with underlying health conditions. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning (LGBTQ+) young people exhibit more suicidal behaviour than those who do not identify as LGBTQ+.
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 27 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.