Special report: Are unis telling parents if their sons or daughters are suicidal?
The Tab contacted 47 of them to find out
In May this year Bristol student Ben Murray took his own life, becoming the 10th to do so there in 18 months. He'd been struggling with anxiety, had missed exams, and had been threatened with being kicked out of uni. He had told his friends and the university but his parents had no idea. When his dad, James, found out, it was completely unexpected.
“There were so many times when we could have intervened if we had known," he told The Times.
A similar incident occurred recently at Bournemouth University when Callum Jewell took his life after telling his university he was feeling "desperate" and being hospitalised from an overdose.
Callum was deemed to be at "low risk" of harming himself again, but was found dead in his halls bedroom in February. Callum's dad told an inquest into his son's death that he was struggling to understand why the university hadn't made him aware of his son's struggles.
As scrutiny grows around how universities handle the mental health, one issue has come to the surface. Parents of students who die by suicide say they had no idea their child was suffering.
Opportunities to protect vulnerable and suicidal students are being missed because of data protection rules and the unclear policies at several unis. Ben's Dad James thinks unis should introduce an opt-in system, where students can agree to unis contacting their parents if they are feeling vulnerable.
Earlier this year, the University of Bristol introduced this system, but what about other UK unis?
In our investigation we have questioned 47 universities on whether they have a similar system. Only 19 replied, and only four told us they do have an opt-in policy.
Several more acknowledged that they were rethinking their policies. One of these unis, Sheffield, refused to comment on their specific mental health policy.
Universities who told us they have explicit opt-in policies
These universities explicitly stated that they have policies allowing students to opt-in to their parents being notified if they are deemed at risk to themselves.
Bristol are planning to implement a policy to contact the parents of students that are struggling. With students' permission, their families will be contacted, in new measures introduced as a reaction to the recent spate of student suicides at the university.
Lincoln operate an opt-in scheme, where students can consent to information being shared with their parents. "If parents, guardians, carers or friends have serious concerns about a student’s wellbeing, we encourage them to contact the Student Wellbeing team who have procedures in place that allow them to reach out to students and offer support if needed," a University of Lincoln spokesperson told us.
A University of Stirling spokesperson said: “The University operates a range of approaches to safeguard student welfare and we enable students to opt-in to allow the University to disclose their personal data to a nominated third party.”
UWE asks all students to provide emergency contact details. In the case of a significant mental health difficulty impacting the student's ability to live and study independently, UWE will approach that emergency contact to include them in the creation of a plan of action to support the student.
Universities considering a policy
These unis told us that they are currently considering implementing a policy similar to Bristol's opt-in policy.
Durham acknowledged the debate on alerting parents over mental wellbeing, naming examples of circumstances in which this would need to be considered as an option, including when there is child protection concern or someone is believed to be at serious physical or mental health risk. They are currently in the process of considering the the best approach to adopt to situations like this.
Kent seek a student's permission before disclosing information, and assess this on a case-by-case basis. In other situations, confidentiality could be breached if "it was felt that the student might be a risk to themselves or others." They said they would continue to review their procedures in response to any changes in professional guidance or legislation.
King's College London
King's acknowledged the importance of disclosure, and a spokesperson for the university said "The first meeting of university’s Student Mental Health Strategy Implementation Group will be taking place this term which will provide us with an opportunity to look at this issue within the context of the new strategy we have recently launched."
UEA's Dr Jon Sharp said "The law already permits Universities to get in touch with an emergency contact in cases where there is very serious concern about a student. An ‘opt-in’ system is not necessary to allow that kind of emergency communication to take place." UEA are currently drafting a set of formal protocols for how emergency contacts will be managed with regards to students' right to confidentiality and safeguarding.
Strathclyde told us plans for opt-in disclosure are being considered "as part of wider discussions surrounding the development of a new student mental health strategy for the University.”
Universities who follow existing guidelines and aren't considering an explicit policy
These unis currently acknowledge being legally able to contact parents in case of an emergency regarding their child's mental health, but have no plans to establish explicit policy based on this.
A spokesperson from the University of Birmingham said "The University already collects information from students about their preferred 'emergency contact'" Whether or not parents are contacted over a serious wellbeing concern is a matter of "professional judgement by a senior staff member."
Citing data protection regulations, Bournemouth University said they are prevented from sharing students' info "other than in exceptional circumstances", and have "no plans to breach the regulations in this respect."
A Newcastle University spokesperson said: “Newcastle University would always communicate with the caregivers and family if it was vital in mitigating the risk to a student. As an institution, we work hard to support and encourage our students to talk to their families and share information.”
When we contacted Reading, they responded, "we do not currently go as far as having a consent contract in case of student mental health concerns, but there already exists an ability to inform parents without the express consent of students in cases where there is high risk."
A University of York spokesperson said: “We have a duty under Data Protection legislation and University policy to protect students' privacy. In certain exceptional circumstances, we may, in agreement with the student, communicate with a third party."
Universities who didn't tell us
These unis either withheld their policies from us, or made us aware that they don't plan on introducing policies which would allow them to contact parents if their child was at risk.
Aberdeen responded saying that they "note Bristol's plans with interest and this is something we will be monitoring closely," but they do not currently have plans for an opt-in contract.
A University of Leicester spokesperson detailed several university policies aimed at improving student mental health, but was unclear on whether contacting parents when students are deemed vulnerable is one of them.
Nottingham responded saying that their approach to student mental health was to offer support directly to students.
Oxford Brookes have no plans to implement a policy similar to Bristol's.
The University of Sheffield refused to comment on their mental health policies.
When we asked St Andrews if they would be introducing a policy similar to Bristol's, they said they wouldn't.
If you’re struggling with a mental health issue, or know someone who is, please contact the Samaritans helpline on 116 123 or contact your university’s counselling service.