All but one of Scotland’s 15 universities fail to keep a record of student suicides, prompting criticism and calls for change.
An investigation by The Ferret has revealed that Stirling is the only Scottish university which knows how many of its students took their own lives. Other universities record student deaths, but do not distinguish suicides.
Mental health campaigners urged universities to review their policies to help end the “stigma” of suicide. Researchers say it would be “sensible” to keep an official record of suicides in order to improve mental health services, though they accept that there can be difficulties verifying causes of death.
Some universities said no records were kept out of sympathy and sensitivity for the students’ families and loved ones. Others pointed out that they were not always told about causes of death.
The Scottish Association for Mental Health called on universities to review their policies on recording student suicides. “Many public authorities are doing good work in suicide prevention, including in reviewing how they respond to deaths by suicide,” said the association’s head of public affairs, Carolyn Lochhead.
“While we understand that this can be challenging, we would encourage all public bodies, including universities, to think about how they record these deaths, to make sure they can offer appropriate support to the staff and others who are affected, and to help all of us break down the stigma associated with suicide.”
Karen Wetherall, a researcher with the Institute of Health and Wellbeing at the University of Glasgow, also thought there would be benefits to universities recording student suicides. “Primarily it would help institutions keep track of trends over time and identify if there are increases in suicide deaths, and hopefully use this information to improve student mental health services,” she said.
She understood that universities would want to be “sensitive” to the need for privacy. “Although this should not preclude the retrospective recording of this information,” she argued.
“Student deaths by suicide are likely to be very small, and therefore looking at individual risk factors could be quite challenging in retrospect, and possibly not particularly useful as they may be variable from person to person.”
Universities in Scotland that don't record student suicides
|University of Glasgow|
|University of Strathclyde|
|University of West of Scotland|
|Glasgow Caledonian University|
|University of Edinburgh|
|Heriot Watt University|
|Queen Margaret University|
|University of St Andrews|
|University of Dundee|
|University of Aberdeen|
|Robert Gordon University|
|University of Highlands and Islands|
Every university in Scotland was asked under freedom of information law whether they recorded the number of students who took their own lives. Fourteen out of 15 responded saying they do not.
The University of Glasgow stressed that it deliberately chose not to document student suicides. Its focus was on “offering and delivering pastoral support to the bereaved family,” it said.
Not speculating on the cause of death “avoids causing additional distress to a family and the student community,” the university argued.
Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh stated: “On occasion we have been informed of student suicide. This has been on a strictly confidential basis and not expected to be released to third parties.”
Other universities highlighted practicalities preventing them from knowing if student suicides have occurred.
“In cases where there is a sudden or unexpected death, the police and procurator fiscal will be involved and they do not report the outcome of their investigations to the university,” said the University of Edinburgh.
“Although in some cases the university may be told the cause of death might have been suicide, we are not able to verify the information and we do not retain records of this.”
Edinburgh university previously kept a record of student deaths believed to be the result of suicide. But it stopped in December 2017 as the data was considered “unreliable, incomplete and unable to support valid analysis”.
Glasgow Caledonian University stated: “At a particularly sensitive time for all concerned, the university is not in position to enquire into the reason for death.”
A document provided by the university, however, suggested that staff might be made aware of some student suicides so that they could reflect upon them. After funeral services staff “may ask all involved members to gather for a debriefing session,” according to the university’s procedure on the death of a student.
“Where the death has been by suicide, this meeting might serve as an opportunity to consider any lessons emerging from tragic circumstances.”
The University of Stirling revealed that it had recorded four student suicides in the last three years. “The university has been recording student death by suicide since 2017,” it said.
A university spokesperson added: “Every student death is a tragedy and our students’ wellbeing is our top priority. We, along with many other UK universities, record the number of student deaths reported to us – and causes if known and verified – in line with good practice.
“This assists with the development of support, in partnership with community mental health services, which are key elements of our evolving mental health and wellbeing strategy.”
Keeping a record of suicide deaths, and possibly serious non-fatal suicide attempts, is sensible. Professor David Gunnell, University of Bristol
Professor David Gunnell, an epidemiologist and suicide expert at the University of Bristol, said: “Keeping a record of suicide deaths, and possibly serious non-fatal suicide attempts, is sensible.”
He accepted, though, that there were problems. “Universities may not always be notified of the outcome of the inquest,” he observed.
“Some deaths that clinicians or researchers would judge to be likely suicides are not recorded as such at the inquest. Sometimes suicidal intent is impossible to determine.”
If students end their lives outwith university terms, it may be more difficult for universities to find out, Gunnell said. The numbers were low so monitoring trends might not be the best approach, he argued.
He also suggested that universities might be concerned that keeping records could damage their reputations if the data was misconstrued. “Maintaining records would enable people to make possibly simplistic and alarmist comparisons across institutes,” he cautioned.
The only other publicly available data on student suicides in Scotland is from National Records of Scotland. It said that there were 34 “probable” student suicides in 2018, though it does not distinguish between university students and those attending other higher education institutions.
Police Scotland and the procurator fiscal’s office declined to provide information on student suicides, saying that collating the information would exceed the £600 cost limit on freedom of information requests.
According to the National Union of Students in Scotland, there has been a steep rise in students trying to access mental health counselling services, with only 60 per cent receiving support in 2016-17. The Scottish Government has provided £20 million to fund 80 counsellors.
But the union’s president in Scotland, Liam McCabe, warned that there was still a “postcode lottery” of treatment services. “We will continue to continue push the Scottish Government and the wider sector to provide for students, ensuring the protection and improvement of their mental health is a central priority for all education institutions across Scotland,” he said.
South of the border, the University of Bristol is one of the few universities to have had its student suicide record disclosed. It has been reported that up to 13 students may have taken their own lives since 2016.
That statistic prompted considerable media attention, including a BBC documentary, Dying for a Degree. It showed that one student, Natasha Abrahart, had asked for help from the student services but didn’t receive adequate support before she killed herself.
As a result the University of Bristol restructured its mental health counselling system. In October 2018 the university published a suicide prevention and response plan.
The plan offers students the chance to opt into a scheme which gives the university permission to notify their parents if they are clearly experiencing and struggling with mental health problems. An estimated 94 per cent of Bristol students consented to the new scheme when registering for the 2018-19 academic year.
Student suicide records has been raised as an issue in the United States. The Associated Press asked the hundred largest US universities for their annual suicide data.
It found that 46 universities recorded suicides, while 43 did not. Nine provided limited or inconsistent data and two didn’t provide statistics.
“We will create a formal model to accurately document all student deaths at UW-Madison,” she was quoted as saying. “Our findings and standards we create will benefit other universities.”
One vocal advocate of suicides being recorded at US universities is the former senator for Oregon, Gordon Smith, whose son took his own life in 2003. “If you don’t collect the data, you’re doing half the job,” he said.
“We need information in mental health if we’re actually going to be able to better tailor health and well-being.”
The freedom of information responses from the following universities are available on whatdotheyknow.com: University of Stirling, Heriot-Watt, University of Dundee, University of Aberdeen and Glasgow Caledonian University. This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.
Photo thanks to iStock/Drimafilm