This week, Universities UK, in partnership with PAPYRUS, published recommendations calling on universities to be more proactive in preventing student suicides. In particular, the new guidance sets out how and when universities should involve families, carers and trusted others when there are serious concerns about the safety or mental health of a student.
The recommendations include:
- Making it mandatory for students to give a trusted contact at registration, being clear that the contact does not have to be a parent, and starting a conversation about when and how these contacts might be involved
- Having check-ins at the start of each academic year for students to update this information and making it easy to update the contact if circumstances change
- Ensuring that universities review their suicide prevention plans and policies to keep students safe, identifying students of concern, assessing risk, working in close partnership with NHS services and, where there are serious concerns, initiating conversations about involving trusted contacts
- Making clear that, although always preferable to gain agreement from the student, where there are serious concerns about a student’s safety or mental health, universities can decide to involve trusted contacts without agreement. Such decisions should always be made in the student’s interests, be taken by appropriately qualified staff, supported by senior leadership, be based on a risk assessment establishing the grounds for serious concern and be properly governed and recorded.
The guidance is the first time a consistent practice has been proposed for the sector. It places the student at the centre of decisions about their safety and care. But it also aims to give institutions the confidence to be proactive about involving trusted contacts, to set out properly governed processes to share information and to give staff clarity about their roles and responsibilities.
Professor Steve West CBE. President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of UWE Bristol says “There is nothing more devastating for a university community than a student death by suicide. As a sector, we need to do everything we can to reduce the risk of suicide and serious self-harm.
Universities are committed to putting students who may be in difficulty at the centre of decisions about their care – including who they want involved. But this commitment must be balanced with a duty to protect a student when there are serious concerns about their safety and welfare.
Universities can help save lives when they adopt a proactive response to suicide prevention, and an important part of that proactive response is making proportionate, risk-based decisions around involving trusted contacts.”
Universities are also being urged to review their suicide prevention plans and policies to keep students safe, working closely with NHS services.
The sister of a student who died by suicide, having not turned up for a university placement, welcomed the new recommendations as “a brilliant system”.
Isabella De George lost her brother Harrison almost two years ago.
Asked if it was a system likely to have helped him, she told BBC Breakfast: “I definitely think it would’ve helped Harrison, and I think it’s a brilliant system because the fact that the student is able to control who they want it to be, whether that is a family (member) or friend or whoever, somebody that they trust I think is just fantastic.”
She said when someone is at “crisis point” they are unable to think freshly, so having a trusted contact in place already is “a safety net”.
Her brother had been studying a PGCE when he died and had been on placement at a local college.
She said the placement had not contacted the university, the student, or the family to let them know he had not turned up that day.
“I think if the university had been able to contact us and have that information of our contact details, they would’ve been able to alert us sooner as well,” she added.
She said students can get “lost in the system” and the new approach could help young people feel reassured that “they are cared about”.
Ged Flynn, chief executive of Papyrus Prevention of Young Suicide, said: “Students have a right to think we always have their best interests at heart.
“This guidance aids the discernment of when to put those best interests at the forefront of decisions on sharing information when emotional crises may loom larger.
“Suicide in university populations is relatively rare but can devastate a community when it happens.
“Together, aided by this guidance, we can all play our part to ensuring it is rarer still.”