Student suicides rise during recession years – National Union of Students believes financial pressures and cutbacks to university support services could be behind increase (UK)

The number of students who have taken their own lives in England and Wales has increased dramatically since the start of the recession. Between 2007 and 2011, suicides by male students in full-time higher education grew by 36%, from 57 to 78, while female student suicides almost doubled  from 18 to 34, according to new figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). This comes a year after a report by the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RPS) urged a “pressing need”  for increased provision and support for student mental health. Key recommendations included training  academics and other university staff to recognise the warning signs of suicide and greater incentives for GPs interested in running health services for students. “Reducing the risk of student suicide is an issue universities take very seriously,” said Nicola  Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK. “Suicide is a devastating loss to family and friends, and to society. Universities recognise the importance of monitoring a student’s transition into higher education, and, where appropriate, they provide training for staff so that they can be alert for students at risk.”

But the National Union of Students (NUS) called the increased numbers of suicide “worrying”. A combination of rising financial and academic pressures on students coupled with recent cutbacks to university support services could be partly to blame, suggested Hannah Paterson, NUS disabled students’ officer.”Over the past five years there has been a huge increase in the amount of stress students are feeling,” said Paterson. “Being a student is a stressful time. Moving away from home and family, you often lose your support networks and the people you would rely on. Now, finance and debt problems are adding increasing pressures. When you’re paying that much for your education, coming out with a good mark matters even more.”

While universities acknowledge their responsibilities over student welfare, said Patterson, “provisional services are the first to go” when funding cuts come in. Reductions in staff numbers and student contact time are growing problems for university counselling services, she added.  “Instead of cutting the amount of people getting access to counselling, services are reducing the number of sessions from 10 to five for example.”

The ONS figures were released via a freedom of information request by Edward Pinkney, 26, a Leeds University graduate and founder of student health charity Mental Wealth UK. The charity’s 25by2012 campaign, launched in the wake of the RPS report, was aimed at establishing mental health and wellbeing groups at 25 universities by the end of 2012. “Our idea was a peer-led approach of students talking to students,” said Pinkey of the roadshow-based campaign, which met its target in three months. “It’s our peers that we tend to talk to about  day-to-day struggles and our peers that determine how we discuss issues around mental health.”

Pinkey added: “The more open students can be the better. And the more open universities can be about  what services they do provide – and what services they don’t – the more we can fix the problem.” A recent BMJ study on the impact of the recession on suicide rates linked low employment rates to  higher rates of people taking their own life. While suicides of both male and female students rose year on year between 2008 and 2010, the general suicide rate for 15-to-44-year-olds fell from 1,869 to 1,674 in the same period. Rising tuition fees and worsening job prospects could be involved, suggested the ONS, but research officer Andrew Yeap warned against drawing conclusions due to the small numbers involved.

Case study: dance performance student, anonymous
When I started university two years ago I felt anxious and depressed. Gradually, panic attacks became a regular occurrence and, as my health deteriorated, there were days when I couldn’t bring myself to leave the house. I’d suffered from some mental health problems while at college, but this was far more severe. It was  clear that I had a serious problem. I contacted my tutors who referred me to my university welfare  services for counselling and I also contacted my NHS doctor. I was turned away by both. Demand for counselling was so high at my university that they couldn’t  offer an appointment for three months. Nor were there any emergency or drop-in sessions available. My GP was also unable to treat me – counselling, I was told, was technically my university’s responsibility. I was encouraged to pester university staff and find a student advocate to argue my  case. But, of course, when you’re suffering from depression and anxiety you’re not best placed to fight with your university about the standard of their welfare provision.

My tutors weren’t much help either. They gave me the usual chin-up responses. I was asked if I was getting enough sleep, and even if I was drinking enough water. It was as if my illness was self- induced, down to lack of care on my part. I started taking anti-depressants because there was no other support available. But these are  supposed to be taken in conjunction with therapy – the idea is the drugs give you sufficient  distance from your emotions so you can discuss how you’re feeling. I remained on the drugs for a year, with all the accompanying side effects. Each time my dosage changed I’d suffer a week’s worth of wobbliness, a major problem if, like me, you study dance performance. For every class I missed, I’d drop a couple of percentage points. I wasn’t granted any special  allowance, perhaps because my illness is invisible. Despite this, I know that were I to plot my grades on a graph against my levels of depression and  anxiety, I would see a direct correlation. There were times when I considered dropping out altogether. I’m on an independent research term at the moment, but I start university again in January. Knowing  that I’ll have to go back into that environment is terrifying.

Interview by Rebecca Ratcliffe

Source: Guardian Professional