Steep rise in stu­dent sui­cides must be tack­led

Jeremy Hunt MP is the sec­re­tary of state for health

THE (Times Higher Education) - - OPINION -

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.

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