Review all student deaths to identify how to prevent future suicides, universities told

‘This will surely help to save lives’, the father of a Bristol student who passed away has said

Universities have been told they should hold serious case reviews over all student deaths.

They should also set up dedicated teams to learn from what happened, new guidance which is the first of its kind says, and they should identify specific actions to prevent future suicides.

The guidance, which was created by Universities UK with the help of youth suicide prevention charity Papyrus, and Samaritans, says universities should record all student deaths and carry out critical-incident reviews, led by a senior member of staff.

It says friends and family need kind and timely support, for example in dealing with the student’s finances, accommodation and belongings. It also recommends all staff should be trained in the event of student deaths, and says student services should have a response plan.

James Murray’s son Ben was a Bristol student who died by suicide in 2018. James told The Times that serious case reviews are essential to allow universities to learn from what went wrong.

James and Ben Murray

James Murray said: “We are pleased that Universities UK and the contributing sector leaders have stepped in to issue this guidance. This will surely help to save lives if universities adopt the guidance and give responsibility to a team to implement the changes learnt from such reviews.

“The rate of suicides is too high, but that is the tip of the iceberg: underneath the surface are many more attempts.”

This year, a coroner called for Exeter University to review its training for suicide prevention and issued a “prevention of future deaths report”, after the death of 21-year-old student Harry Armstrong Evans. After the inquest into Harry’s death, Exeter’s registrar Mike Shore-Nye said the uni would “consider the coroner’s detailed conclusions” and “make sure we learn the lessons to enhance our support and operations further”.

Harry Armstrong Evans

Harry’s father Rupert told The Times that the new guidance was a “real step forward for families after the event, but with respect to reducing future deaths, it is totally useless, in my opinion”.

He said: “The measures to prevent future deaths are misleading and totally impractical because universities use ‘data protection’ to conceal the truth about the number of suicides.

“The ‘guidance’ naively suggests that no fault or blame should be attributed and a candid and empathetic approach can be adopted at inquests, where in reality the lawyers representing the university and their insurers will admit to nothing — which says everything.”

Rupert and his family are campaigning for “Harry’s law”, where universities would have to publish their annual rates of student death by suicide. They want the Department for Education to be able to investigate universities, and place them in special measures if they have a suicide rate exceeding the national average.

UUK said: “The guidance is the first of its kind to set out the challenges that need careful and compassionate management following any student death — but especially a suspected death by suicide.

Professor Steve West, president of UUK, said: “What higher education institutions do in the immediate aftermath of a death by suicide matters. We must respond with compassion and respect and be sensitive to – and guided by – the wishes of the family of the person who has died.

“It is also critical that we learn from each and every case so that we can limit the risks of future tragedies. This guidance will help us respond with kindness, to learn from each death and to do everything we can to save lives.”

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) on 0800 58 58 58. 

If you’ve got a story you’d like to tell us – whether it’s difficulties with getting uni support, or anything you think we should hear, get in touch in confidence by emailing [email protected].

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