In September 2018, Universities UK and Papyrus launched new guidance to help prevent student suicides within higher education. Although new data published by the ONS showed that there is a significantly lower rate of student suicide among university students in England and Wales compared with the general population, there is no room for complacency.

Aimed at university leaders, the document includes advice on developing a strategy focused specifically on suicide prevention, covering the following areas:

  • steps to prevent student suicide
  • intervening when students get into difficulties
  • best practice for responding to student suicides
  • checklist highlighting steps university leaders can take to make their communities safer
  • case studies on approaches to suicide prevention through partnership working.

One of the case studies portrayed in the report is from Jo Smith at University of Worcester, lead of their award-winning Suicide Safer project. Here Jo tells us more about the project and shares the impact evidence.

In 2014, University of Worcester established a multi-agency ‘Suicide Safer’ Project inviting University staff, County Council Public Health, NHS Trust and third sector organisations to develop a multi-faceted suicide prevention model to contribute to a ‘Suicide safer’ University and, in a phased plan, to a ‘Suicide safer’ City and County as an active partner in the Local Authority Mental Wellbeing and Suicide Prevention Plan.

The Project comprises four key strands:

  1. Campaigning/Awareness Raising-to raise awareness about student suicide, tackle stigma and signpost to available support.
  2. Education/Training- to improve staff and student mental health and suicide prevention literacy and skills and embed mental health and suicide prevention training into student and staff teaching curricula
  3. Student and Staff Support- to improve availability and awareness about mental health and suicide prevention/postvention resources and support options for students and staff, ranging from self-help, peer support, first line interventions to more specialist support/ onward referral including crisis intervention and postvention support.
  4. Research- contributing to UK student suicide research through two PhD studentships which commenced in October 2016:
    • one project exploring student suicide incidence, recording/monitoring, and current suicide prevention and response strategies in UK higher education institutions and barriers/facilitators that may influence provision. This match funded project with James Wentworth Stanley Memorial Fund has received national support from Universities UK, Public Health England, the Department of Health, and the Office for National Statistics.
    • A second project exploring support needs and roles for staff in higher education following a student suicide.

Impact evidence

Our student suicide incidence is extremely low and it is difficult to assess impact in terms of preventing mental health problems worsening or identifying potential suicides that were successfully prevented because of this initiative. The impact is best summarised in the following e-mail quote:

“I see this as a ‘good news story’ as it shows that we are able to deal with an issue of this nature, with confidence. This is perhaps in part due to the increase in Mental Health First Aid training that currently exists at the university and is hugely appreciated. This is also certainly something that would have been more challenging, were it not for the existence of our Suicide Safer Project Group, which facilitates the inspiration to act when necessary”
Academic Tutor email (following an incident of serious self-harm).

The project has made a wider local and national contribution to student suicide prevention through contributions to the Local Authority County Suicide prevention plan development and activities including a national Public Health England Higher Education suicide prevention master class. We have supported other Universities to develop student suicide prevention plans and been involved in Universities UK national task groups on student mental health and suicide.

Our work has been identified as a best practice example in several national guidance, student and sector publications: NUS Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Guide (May 2016): Public Health England Suicide Prevention national guidance (November 2016); Student Minds Student living: collaborating to support mental health in university accommodation (April 2017) Universities UK Step Change framework (September 2017); Institute for Public Policy Research Not By Degrees: Improving student mental health in the UK’s universities (September 2017).

To contact Jo, you can email j_smith@worc.ac.uk

More pioneer examples on wellbeing in higher education