The UK’s unis spend millions on mental health, but don’t know how many suicides happen

Unis have been accused of ‘washing their hands’ of students by not counting suicides

Despite spending millions of pounds on mental health support every year, nearly half of the UK’s universities don’t know how many of their students are dying by suicide.

When asked by The Tab, 27 of 51 of the country’s universities were simply unable to say how many students had taken their own lives.

There’s no legal requirement for universities to count suicides – so most simply don’t bother. Some even say that they don’t record the statistics as it’s “not a business need”.

Labour MP Matt Western, the shadow minister for higher education, told The Tab the information is “crucial”, and that it is “essential” for the government to take action and not leave the task to individual universities.

“This information is crucial for appropriately directing resources and specialist support. It is welcome that some universities have taken this step themselves, but the government should not leave this to individual institutions,” Western said.

This is not simply an issue of statistics and data collection. The amount universities spend on mental health has shot up over recent years. The government says student mental health is a “top priority”. And yet, on the most basic and tragic measure of how things can go wrong, half of the country’s universities seem to be keeping themselves in the dark.

The unis who don’t know how many students are taking their own lives:

Aberdeen, Aberystwyth, Bath, Brighton, Dundee, Durham, Exeter, Glasgow, Kent, King’s, Liverpool, LSE, Manchester Met, Nottingham, Nottingham Trent, Oxford Brookes, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Queen Mary, Reading, Royal Holloway, St Andrews, Surrey, Swansea, Ulster, Warwick, Westminster.

Through a Freedom of Information request, we asked universities how many students had taken their own lives in recent years. In their responses to The Tab, universities’ reasons for not counting were largely similar. Most said it was not a legal, or statutory requirement, to collect these statistics, so did not.

A student’s death is only officially considered a suicide after a coroner has reached that conclusion at an inquest. These often take place month’s after a student has died. Some unis said they did not routinely attend inquests, and were not made aware of verdicts involving their students.

Others said that they simply did not formally record the cause of a student’s death in their records. And yet, universities who did know often spoke of making deliberate efforts to find and record this information.

But beyond that, Exeter said suicide statistics are “not a data item that universities are required to report on statutorily nor is it required as a business need to enable teaching and learning activities.”

Izzy De George’s brother Harrison died in December, in his student accommodation while studying for a PGCE at Manchester Met. An inquest last week heard he had been referred to the university’s counselling services before his death, and had attempted suicide previously.

However, the coroner ruled that due to a lack of a note, and the fact Harrison had made future plans, a conclusion of suicide could not be reached.

Izzy believes that universities should be made to collect information on student suicides. “If they’re not investigating suicides, they can’t identify where they’ve potentially fallen short, so they can’t do anything about it,” she told The Tab.

“It’s like washing their hands of them entirely.”

Manchester Met said that, despite not collecting statistics, it deals with student deaths on a case-by-case basis “at a senior level within the university, to ensure that any appropriate follow up actions are taken.”

Yet, not only do the bulk of individual universities have no idea of the scale of the problem, but there are no recent statistics at all. Or to put it another way: nobody actually knows how many students are taking their own lives.

The Tab asked the ONS how many students had died in 2020 – they didn’t know. The most recent stats are for 2019, which revealed that 174 students took their own lives.

Universities minister Michelle Donelan told The Tab she’d be writing to the ONS to ask them to publish up-to-date information. But Labour is calling on the government to do more to ensure that universities make the effort.

Matt Western MP told The Tab: “It is essential that the Government supports all universities to collect data on deaths by suicide.

“This information is crucial for appropriately directing resources and specialist support. It is welcome that some universities have taken this step themselves, but the government should not leave this to individual institutions.

“Deaths by suicide are rising among young people, including students. Action is clearly needed including within the education system, to ensure all young people can access the mental health support they need.”

If you or someone you know has been affected by this story, please speak to someone or contact Samaritans on 116 123 at any time. You can also contact Anxiety UK on 03444 775 774, Mind on 0300 123 3393, and Calm (Campaign against living miserably, for men aged 15 to 35) on 0800 58 58 58.

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