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University and College Staff

In the UK many young people under the age of 35 take their own lives each year. In 2012 the number was over 1600.

Some of them are students.

This page will give you advice and tips to help to save young lives. You may also be interested in receiving training from PAPYRUS in interventing to stop suicides happening. Please contact us here.

Suicide is not just a tragic conclusion to a young person’s life – it has repercussions for all those left behind.

Suicide will always be prevalent in human society - one could argue that it is part of the human condition. However many suicides can be prevented.

Research shows that with appropriate early intervention and support, a suicidal person can be deterred from taking that ultimate step.

Facts

  • Young men are three times more likely to kill themselves than young women

  • Although suicide is often perceived as an impulsive act, most suicides have been planned beforehand

  • Many young people who have taken their own lives had no apparent mental health problem

  • Experts believe that most people who take their own lives are suffering from depression

  • People who have known someone who has taken their own life can become vulnerable too

  • Students can be vulnerable during times of transition such as the beginning or end of the academic year

  • Contrary to popular belief, suicidal young people are not always socially isolated - they can appear to be the life and soul of the party

Why does it happen?

The reasons for suicidal behaviour are complex. It is often the result of a combination of several factors which may include:

  • A mental or physical illness which is difficult to bear
  • A break up with a boy or girlfriend
  • Debt, financial pressures, accommodation issues and other day-to-day concerns
  • Underachievement or academic failure resulting in personal (and/or anticipated parental) disappointment
  • Bereavement, particularly exposure to another suicide
  • An inability to find a solution to problems
  • A previous trauma such as physical, sexual or mental abuse
  • A profound sense of shame as a result of something that has happened
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Risk factors

  • A mental health problem such as depression, bi-polar disorder or schizophrenia
  • An anxiety disorder such as OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder)
  • A previous history of self-harm puts people at higher risk. Self-harm can take many forms such as cutting the skin or taking an overdose of tablets. However self-harming behaviour is very often used as a method for keeping the person ‘safe’ – it can provide an outlet for suppressed emotion.
  • Personality traits that include perfectionism, setting unrealistic targets for themselves, poor impulse control, sensitive nature, poor coping skills, feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, low confidence and self-esteem, an inability to handle disappointment.
  • Overuse of alcohol and / or drugs which may impair judgment.
  • Knowledge of another person’s suicide.
  • Times of transition during the academic year particularly towards the end or near the beginning of term when there can be less support from peers.
  • International students can feel culturally isolated and there may be high expectations from distant families.

Possible warning signs

  • Struggling academically such as non attendance at lectures or missing deadlines
  • A change in behaviour - not taking care of themselves, spending most of the day in bed
  • Signs of acute anxiety including fear of failure, or a social anxiety - perhaps because of disability, speech impediment or cultural isolation
  • Exhibiting an overwhelming feeling of not being able to cope
  • Self-harming behaviour
  • Talking about suicide – maybe in a covert manner (often identified with hindsight – the person had been giving ‘clues’ as to how they were feeling)
  • An ambivalence and/or a dread of the future indicating feelings of hopelessness
  • Speaking or acting in terms of settling their affairs - for example tying up loose ends, giving possessions away
  • Early warning signs of a serious mental health problem
  • Beware of the calm after the storm! After a period of mental distress the person may appear to be better, calmer – at peace with the world. This can be the precursor to a suicide attempt

What to say and do

Find out what:

  • Student Services can offer in terms of help; such as counselling, access to mental health and other services, as well as how to access these services
  • other support services are available in the local community
  • protocols and procedures are in place in your institution for dealing with a young person in distress

For example: breaking confidentiality, access to an out of hours crisis service, liaising with NHS / emergency services

If you are concerned about a student, follow your instinct and encourage them to talk to you. Talking about self destructive feelings does not make it more likely to happen.

Listen to what they are saying, take it seriously and make it clear that you genuinely care about them.

Don't make light of it, criticise or be judgmental. Reassure them that things can and probably will get better – that there is hope for the future.

Ask their permission to involve parents, friends and /or student support services. (Involving family members may not always be appropriate or practical - for example in the case of international students.)

A diplomatic approach may be required with a student who does not recognise the need or is unwilling to accept help – talk through all the options. Find out why they are reluctant and try to address that particular issue.

Give information about where they can get help, offer to initiate the call, or make an appointment for them yourself. The GP should be the first port of call. However, many students fail to register with a GP when they move to a university / college which is away from home.

Suggest that someone goes with them. Support from peers is known to be very helpful.

Follow it up to ascertain whether they kept the appointment.

If you are sufficiently concerned tell them you would like to involve a colleague from student support services as they may be able to help or advise you both on what to do. Alternatively most student support and counselling services will allow you to discuss a case without requiring you to give the name of the student.

Keep an open dialogue going – encourage them to approach you again.

Staff can help to address academic problems by offering solutions which may include leave of absence, time out, deferring for a year or extended deadlines.

Informing a student of ‘failure’ in examinations should be done sensitively – especially if the student has underachieved in the past. Students should be given contact details for where they can get support at this time. It is worth remembering that the perfectionist student who gains a 2.1 rather than a first may perceive this as a failure!

Other options can be discussed - such as changing to a university or college nearer home, temporarily suspending studies until things get better or even leaving further/higher education permanently to pursue a career via an employment route.

Don’t shoulder the burden of responsibility of any of this on your own. Liaise with other staff and find out where you can get support for yourself too. Call the PAPYRUS helpline HOPELineUK 0800 068 41 41 for additional advice.

After a death by suicide

If you are directly involved:

a) Familiarise yourself with the Sudden Death Policy in your institution and liaise with the key person - often the Head of Student Services or Head of Student Counselling - who will be co-ordinating the organisation's response.

This should include consultation with specialist bereavement support organisations such as Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (previously known as SOBS), Compassionate Friends and CRUSE.

b) All media enquiries should be handled by the institution and not by individuals, facts being kept to a minimum - particularly the circumstances of the death. Imitative suicides can and do happen therefore the death must not be ‘glamorised’ in any way .

c) Get support – perhaps from the institution’s chaplaincy or student support services - if you have to deliver the news to students yourself. Offer support services to students at the same time and try to strike a balance between giving enough information but without divulging too much detail.

d) The chaplain or other support services can advise on matters such as sending a formal letter of condolence to the family or attending the funeral.

e) Arrangements for memorials, awards or the return of coursework and personal possessions should be discussed with families in order to comply with their wishes.

Suicide is shocking and can have a profound impact on the wellbeing of those left behind.

Some people will remain troubled by it for a long time – feelings of disbelief, blame and guilt are common.

Students have conveyed a sense of needing to be ‘looked after’ in the aftermath of a suicide and support services need to be proactive in this respect.

Equally staff should be sensitive to the academic repercussions for friends after a suicide. This may impair their functioning for the remainder of their course.

They may require on-going support for months afterwards and dispensation from exams or the opportunity to re-sit may have to be considered.

Staff and students should be encouraged to talk through their feelings not just immediately after the person has died but also in the ensuing weeks.

Staff should not hesitate to seek support for themselves too.

Sources of help

You can speak confidentially and with anonymity to professionally trained staff on the PAPYRUS helpline. HOPELineUK 0800 068 41 41.

Advisors can give support, practical advice on what to do and information to anyone concerned that a young person may be at risk of harming themselves. A call back service is in place for those who call out of hours.

This information is available in booklet form see Publications Preventing Student Suicide Help Is At Hand: a resource for people bereaved by suicide and other sudden, traumatic death (2008 edition).

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