CN: discussion of suicide and mental illness

UNIVERSITIES are in a mortality crisis. Only last year, the Office of National Statistics recorded 95 university suicides: the first time university suicide rates have been revealed publicly. In an age where mental health is being discussed more on social media, and where the government has pledged to provide more mental health support for young people, it appears that the problem is still deeply prevalent. The stigma around mental illness may be diminishing, but there needs to be more support for those suffering at universities who feel that they cannot talk about their struggles.

University offers a vast amount of opportunities, allowing you to gain independence, new friendships, and knowledge. However, the process can be daunting for some. It can be an extremely isolating experience, in which some find that they struggle to create an equilibrium between studying, making friends and looking after themselves. Abby Young Powell stated in The Guardian that “pressure for first year students to meet new people can exacerbate the feelings of isolation”. These issues can soon manifest themselves into one huge dark cloud, and it’s not always clear where students can go to get immediate help.

This pervading sense of being lost and alone is one of the reasons why many are taking their own lives during their university degree. In fact, writing for The Telegraph, Olivia Rudgard notes that “the suicide rate among UK students had risen by 56 per cent in the 10 years between 2007 and 2016, from 6.6 to 10.3 per 100,000 people”. Rudgard further states that ONS figures show that “female students experienced a particularly striking rise in suicide […] suicide among women in their early twenties is at its highest level in two decades”.

With these worrying statistics in mind, now is the time to implement preventative policies at universities to stop more people from losing their lives.

We live in a highly visual society, so there need to be more posters in university buildings promoting organisations where you can find help. Universities like Exeter and Leeds run Nightline, where students can ring professionally trained listeners. However, not many know about Nightline, Samaritans, Young Minds or Mind: these fantastic organisations are not promoted enough. Universities need to adopt the approach that the ‘We Listen’ campaign has, that seeks to raise awareness of Samaritans, so that those suffering know how to ring them. These posters are now up in rail stations across England, Scotland and Wales and they aim to encourage people to contact Samaritans – posters like these could help someone struggling during their degree.

Most students have never lived away from home before they arrive at university; they are now left without the physical presence of a parental figure. Pastoral care should thus be a priority in universities: tutors should reach out to their tutees and check on how they are coping as a student, both in their studies and emotionally, rather than relying on their tutee to reach out first. For someone that is struggling emotionally, the act of reaching out and talking about it is one of the hardest things to do – staff need to do what they can to make this process easier. The changing of a student’s mood and participation in seminars could be a key indicator of mental health problems, and students should not have to suffer in silence.

Image: Flickr

Fortunately, universities are now beginning to take on a more pastoral role, albeit slowly. The BBC have discussed Bristol University’s new “opt-in scheme”, in which Freshers are “being asked to give consent for university staff to share major concerns with their guardians”. This scheme comes after 11 students at Bristol took their own lives since 2016. Through this scheme, more lives could be saved, as tutors will have the authority to make their guardians aware of the student’s struggles. If all universities adopted this strategy, the painful losses of loved ones could decrease. Those that are in authority, such as student union leaders, need to speak openly about the importance of mental health; if they talk about it openly, then the stigma surrounding mental health will dissolve.

Universities therefore need to pull together to help protect students who are in need, before it is too late. Pastoral care needs to become a more prevalent feature in higher education, so that students can feel safe and secure in this often daunting place. As students, we can help by looking out for our friends and watching their changes of mood and behaviour, but fundamentally, we need to look after ourselves.

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