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University staff need suicide prevention training

New guidelines offer check list to spot students in difficulties

Mark Gould

Friday, 07 September 2018

New guidelines say that all university staff who deal with students should receive training in suicide intervention and prevention.

The guidance* published by the Universities UK (UUK) group and the youth suicide prevention charity Papyrus comes amid concerns that educational establishments are not doing enough to help students with psychiatric problems.

During the 2016-17 academic year, 95 students killed themselves, according to the first estimate of student suicide by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The University of Bristol has had 10 student deaths since October 2016, some of which have been confirmed as suicide, including three in a short period before exam season earlier this year.

Suicide is the main cause of death in people under 35, with more than 1,600 cases in the UK every year. However, ONS data showed the rate of suicide among university students is significantly lower than among the general population.

Professor Steve West, the vice-chancellor of University of the West of England, Bristol and Chair of UUK’s mental health in higher education advisory group, said the group urges university leaders to work with their student support services to develop a strategy which focuses on preventing, intervening, and responding to suicide as part of an overall mental health strategy.

“Students and staff must be at the centre of this, and senior leadership within universities must build on their relationships with local authorities and the NHS to achieve real change,” he added.

The guidance comes amid growing concern about how universities deal with mental health problems. This summer the higher education minister Sam Gyimah warned that institutions risked “failing an entire generation of students”.

The new guide includes advice on when to intervene when students get into difficulties, as well as a checklist of steps that university leaders can take to prevent suicides in their communities.

It says institutions should use “alert systems to detect patterns of difficulty such as not engaging with academic work, running into academic difficulties or dropping off the academic radar,” as well as non-academic warning signs such as not paying rent or fees or not being involved with external activities.

It also calls for “all student-facing academic, professional services and operational staff across the organisation” to receive training and refresher courses in suicide awareness and how to intervene with vulnerable students.

Controversy has surrounded the data regulations that restrict universities from contacting families of students exhibiting signs of risk. Earlier this year, James Murray called for those restrictions to be set aside in cases of potential suicide, saying: “In this situation we’ve got to stop the intellectual debate on data privacy and focus on protecting the vulnerable.”

The guidance advises: “Consider your institution’s policy and practice on information sharing agreements, disclosure and consent”. The document also says UUK would consult government, parents, students and experts to produce further guidance.

In June, Gyimah backed a proposal that would lead to students being asked if they want to opt in to an alert system authorising their university to contact their parents if they find themselves in a mental health crisis.

The new guide also suggests the establishment of on-campus suicide intervention and “postvention” teams.

After a case of suicide, universities are advised to beware of “contagion” and arrange rapid referral and support for affected students and staff. It also advises staff to “find the best way to celebrate the life of the deceased without glamorising suicide”.

*Suicide-safer Universities. Guidance prepared by Universities UK and Papyrus, September 2018.

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