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UK government to commission review of student suicides

Image: Fiona McIntyre for Research Professional News

Minister Robert Halfon confirms independent review

The Department for Education will commission a national review of university suicides in England, in response to concerns about student mental health.

In a letter to MPs on 5 June, the minister for skills, apprenticeships and higher education, Robert Halfon, said an independent organisation would perform the review so “universities can learn from tragic instances of suicide by ensuring lessons are shared across the sector”.

The letter followed a parliamentary debate, also on 5 June, in which MPs debated the possibility of introducing a statutory duty of student care on higher education providers.

Survey reveals ‘poor’ support

Opening the debate, Conservative MP Nick Fletcher, a member of the Petitions Committee that called the debate, said 202 male students died by suicide between the 2017 and 2020 academic years. In the same period 117 female students took their own lives.

“The Petitions Committee ran an online survey asking petitioners about their experience of poor mental health at university, the support provided by their university and their views on introducing a statutory duty of care for higher education students,” Fletcher said.

More than 1,500 people replied, with an “extremely large percentage” saying they had suffered or were suffering with their mental health.

“Around half felt that their university was very unsupportive and did not feel that they could discuss the issue with their tutor,” he said. “For institutions that exist to work with young people, that is poor.”

‘Sector can create strong support structures’

Matt Western, Labour’s shadow universities minister, said the UK higher education sector “needs to be at the forefront of tackling wider trends in mental health problems in society”.

“It is clear that approaches vary among institutions but that some have designed comprehensive strategies to ensure student welfare is central and integrated into the experience,” he said.

“These are centres of excellence whose work I want to see replicated across the piece. Where best practice is well informed, widely applied, comprehensive and open to constant improvement, I believe the sector can create strong support structures for students.”

Duty-of-care difficulties

Responding to the concerns, Halfon (pictured) described the possible introduction of a duty of care as a “very difficult issue”.

“I know that many people listening to the debate have had painful first-hand experience of losing bright, capable young people to suicide,” he said.

“We owe it to the memories of those young people to collectively take strong and effective action that prevents further tragedies.”

Halfon also referred to the Student Minds university mental health charter, which he said set out “the principles for a whole-university approach to mental health”. In his letter to MPs, Halfon challenged all universities to sign up to the charter by the end of 2024.

If you have been affected by the issues discussed in this article and need support, the Samaritans can be contacted online or via 116 123