Steep rise in student suicides must be tackled
Jeremy Hunt MP is the secretary of state for health
With the initial adrenalin and excitement of freshers’ week starting to ebb, many first-year students will now be settling in to the everyday business of university life.
For the majority, it will be a rewarding and formative experience that will enrich their lives both intellectually and emotionally. It won’t be all plain sailing, of course. University life involves many new challenges, from coursework and exams to being away from home, to finding your place in new social circles and learning to live on a budget. And inevitably some students find this very tough.
Last year, more than 15,000 first-year students at UK universities and colleges disclosed a mental health condition to their tutors or university support staff. Strikingly, that is a five-fold increase on the numbers 10 years ago.
That will partly be caused by higher student numbers and less taboo attached to talking about mental health – both very positive developments. But we also need to ask ourselves whether the pressures might actually be getting worse – driven, perhaps, by factors such as increased use of social media.
Mental health is now a leading cause of students failing to complete courses. The number of students in England and Wales who died by suicide has nearly doubled since 2007, accounting for nearly 150 deaths last year. Against a broader national trend of declining suicides, this is particularly tragic. But there is a lot that can be done.
First, for those with pre-existing mental health conditions, we need to look much harder at the transition between children’s and adult services during adolescence and early adulthood. NHS England is now funding a scheme to address this, which is an important first step.
Second, we need to look at the wide variations in mental health provision available for students, and Universities UK has set up a task force to address this.
Finally, we need all universities to take a holistic approach. Mental health can’t be compartmentalised within an institution as part of – say – “pastoral services”. Every part of the university environment must play a key part in preventing mental health crises and enhancing resilience.
We’re lucky to have some of the finest institutions in the world judged on teaching and research capabilities. Let’s now become world class in our provision of mental health support too.