Universities should be legally required to disclose how many of their intake have taken their own lives.
No experience is more traumatic for a parent than the death of a child, and for that death to be self-inflicted compounds the tragedy. Yesterday Rupert Armstrong Evans paid moving tribute to his son Harry, an undergraduate at Exeter University, who was found dead at home in the summer a few months after failing an exam. He was speaking after the inquest, at which the coroner criticised the university for failing Harry amid a mental health crisis, and for a “catalogue of missed opportunities coupled with systems failings”.
These comments give weight to a campaign initiated by Mr Armstrong Evans to compel universities to publish the number of suicides among their students. Under such legislation, dubbed “Harry’s law”, coroners’ courts would be obliged to tell universities when the suicide of an enrolled student is registered, and universities would be required to publish annually a record of student suicides. Mr Armstrong Evans is right to press for this. No parent should have to undergo the torment he has suffered, and his proposals might have a salutary effect on universities in impressing upon them an obligation to safeguard students’ mental health.
There were more than 5,000 deaths due to suicide in England and Wales in 2020, including an estimated 64 students. But these are only estimates, as official records are lacking; hence the pressure for mandatory reporting. And while every victim of suicide is unique, there are some recurring patterns in the data. Young men are more likely to take their own lives than young women, and students who leave home for the first time may be especially vulnerable.
It has long been this way. In his pioneering study of suicide more than 120 years ago, the social theorist Émile Durkheim noted that populations with higher levels of education were more prone to suicide. The questioning spirit of young students may make them susceptible to harsh self-criticism and despair when they believe they are falling short. This appears to have been the case with Harry and other gifted students at UK universities whose suicides have been recorded in recent years.
Moreover, depressive disorder is the most significant contributor to suicides among young people. This is not a matter of just feeling sad, as everyone does sometimes: it is a clinical illness born of distorted thinking, which stimulates feelings of excessive guilt and worthlessness. There are validated psychological and pharmacological treatments for addressing mood disorders. Universities fail in a duty of care to their students if they skimp on the availability of trained counsellors for those who are struggling emotionally.
Universities UK, the body representing higher education, has in recent weeks recommended that universities contact family members or carers if they have concerns about the mental health of a student. It is perplexing that such guidance needs to be given, but it does and it is a problem that it is merely advisory rather than binding. Universities have a duty of care and safety, but not specifically a legal framework regarding students’ mental health. The evidence suggests that some institutions have followed an unduly legalistic approach of requiring a student to first give permission for their loved ones to be contacted. This sort of defensiveness will lead to further tragedies. Universities should have no room for manoeuvre in disclosing their mental health procedures. Harry’s law, if enacted, could save lives.