Simon Merrywest: Student Welfare
Warning: The following article discusses themes relating to student suicide. If that is not a topic for you then thanks for clicking through and you may prefer instead to read about our support for students elsewhere on Staffnet.
There has been a lot of media coverage recently about suicide amongst university students, and given such an important topic, I wanted to summarise some of the key issues and comment from a University of Manchester perspective.
The first thing to say is that for the university sector, in line with trends in suicide among young people generally, rates of suicide had been increasing since 2009/10 (Office for National Statistics data from 2018). However, their most recent analysis, released earlier this year, shows a decline in that rate over the academic years 2016/17 to 2019/20, with an average of 3.9 deaths per 100,000. Moreover, the suicide rate for university students in the academic year ending 2020 in England and Wales was even lower at 3 deaths per 100,00 students which also much lower than in the age matched wider population (where the rate is a little over 12 deaths per 100,000).
In common with many bereaved families, I believe that all universities must make every effort to collect information about suicides and many can and should be more open about the number of suspected and confirmed (only a coroner can make such a determination) such cases. Indeed, you may have read a blog post I wrote on this point earlier in the year.
At our university, we take very great care to record and examine in detail every suspected suicide and we have developed a good relationship with the local coroner’s team, to the extent that we are routinely notified of any sudden deaths and I am invited to contribute to the subsequent inquest. We have a comprehensive suicide strategy, which was developed with input from our students, individuals with lived experience of student suicide and academic colleagues with expertise in this area and over the last 5 years our average rate of suicide (with such small numbers, a rolling average is an appropriate measure) has dropped. So far, this academic year, one of our students is very sadly suspected to have taken their own life.
Universities UK (UUK; the organisation representing most universities) recently published guidance on the approach universities should adopt for supporting students on placement. This is particularly aimed at courses such as nursing and education where students will often spend time in a hospital or school and concerns about a drop in attendance or other indicators that the student may be struggling can be harder to connect between different organisations. This work came about following the death of one of our graduates, Harrison De George, whilst he was studying for a postgraduate degree at Manchester Metropolitan University. I am working with Harrison’s sister, Isabella, to reflect on our own approaches to students on placement and to consider how we can adopt this new guidance.
Last week, UUK launched further guidelines, calling on universities to be more proactive in preventing student suicides. Specifically, this sets out how and when universities should involve families, carers and trusted others when there are serious concerns about the safety or mental health of a student. Our university has, for several years, proactively contacted families and other third parties when we have serious concerns about a student, although decisions about when and whether to do so are seldom straightforward, but a case study of our approach is included in the UUK new framework and we have been contacted already by some other universities, who do not have a clear position, but who want to learn from our experience. Later this year a framework to support all universities to respond to suicides with candour and compassion will be launched; work which draws heavily on the approach we use in Manchester.
Several bereaved families known as the Learn Network have recently launched a petition calling for a statutory duty of care for students to be introduced for all universities. You may recall that this was a feature in the high-profile case of Natasha Abrahart who died by suicide at the University of Bristol and whose parents, Robert and Margaret, subsequently took civil action. The judge in the subsequent court case found that the University of Bristol was not negligent, but deemed the adjustments made by the University for Natasha’s academic assessment were insufficient. He also though agreed with the University that they did not have a formal duty of care for Natasha.
The concept of a duty of care is a legally complex one. It is easy to see how this applies in a healthcare or primary school setting, where the person being cared for is reliant to a large extent on those working in the setting to protect them from harm. However, in a university the learners are usually adults and whilst we (as with every organisation) have legal obligations under health and safety law and must comply with the Equality Act with respect to, for example, considering reasonable adjustments for a student with a disability, there is not a wider legal duty of care to protect students from the potential of harm caused by their mental health. This is what the bereaved families, some of whom I have come to know well, are petitioning for.
There is not the space here to explore such an important issue in depth but having journeyed with several families through the grief of the loss of their chid to suicide, I can strongly empathise with the arguments being made in favour of such an approach. However, consideration must also be given to the potential unintended consequences of turning to the statute book (quite apart from finding parliamentary airtime). A new legal duty of care may, ironically, lead to some universities being more defensive and some colleagues, at the first sign of a student struggling with their mental health, may rush them to the mental health team out of fear of litigation. This issue has a way to run, but my hope is that the fact it is being debated and explored so widely may at least lead to some form of more explicit sector-wide clarification about the scope of mental health provision expected of our universities.
Student suicide is, understandably, a difficult topic for many, but we should all have the confidence to discuss the issues around it and to ask questions no matter how naïve or difficult they may be. I am therefore always happy to speak to colleagues in more detail, particularly with respect to the context within our own university.
Finally, this is also a good opportunity to remind all of us that information for staff about support for our students, including what to do if you have ever have significant concerns, can always be found prominently on Staffnet. If you do not have access to the internet then concerns should be passed through your line manager or by calling the Campus Support and Security control room 24 hours a day on 0161 306 9966.
Dr. Simon Merrywest
Director for the Student Experience