Almost 90% of students want universities to be more transparent about suicides, according to a survey carried out after the death of Harry Armstrong Evans, an undergraduate who killed himself in 2021 after suffering a mental health crisis.
Armstrong Evans’ parents said the survey added weight to their campaign for a “Harry’s law” under which universities would have to publish the annual student suicide rate.
A coroner last year strongly criticised Exeter University for its care of Armstrong Evans’ case, concluding it had failed to respond effectively to his “cry for help” after a disastrous set of exam results that followed months of isolation in near empty halls of residence during the pandemic.
A survey carried out by the student news site the Tab asked 4,000 students at more than 30 UK universities including all the Russell Group ones: “Do you wish your university was more transparent about the amount of suicides that happen at your uni?” Eighty-eight per cent said they did.
Izzy Schifano, contributors editor at the Tab, said: “Students have had it really rough over the past three years, and this hasn’t been spoken about enough in the press or by the government.
“The class of 2023 has endured a pandemic, hundreds of hours of lost teaching due to the strikes, and a student rent crisis, all while dealing with the everyday pressures of their degree. So it’s no surprise that student mental health is at its worst and students want their universities to be held accountable. Students don’t deserve to be left in the dark about suicides in their community.”
Armstrong Evans’ mother and father, Alice and Rupert, said they felt vindicated by the survey. “Students should be permitted to know about suicides,” said Alice. “Potential students will then be able to decide what action to take – whether to continue and take up the course or otherwise.”
The family of Harry Armstrong Evans: from left his sister Freddy, his mother, Alice, and his father, Rupert. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian
Alice said they had not talked to their son, a physics and astrophysics student, about suicide and were shocked after his death when they found there had been a series of other suicides involving Exeter students.
“We would do anything to get Harry back. I would not wish the terrible pain we are going through on any other student’s parent, siblings and their friends,” said Alice.
“What we are seeking is transparency from universities about student suicides at each university. We would like a proper analysis of deaths of students from suicide by each course subject. We want to prevent any other parents from suffering as we have and their families being destroyed like ours has been.”
Alice visited Exeter University’s campus in March on University Mental Health Day. “I was rather nervous about walking about the campus,” she said.
“But the students could not have been more welcoming and interested. Some hugged me, some wanted me to have their love and some listened in to my discussions and wanted my leaflet as they had heard of Harry’s suicide but they did not know the details.”
Rupert said: “I can only conclude that commercial objectives are taking preference over student welfare, as it isn’t in a university’s interest to be open and honest about suicides.”
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Suicide rates among students are lower than among people of a similar age who are not in education, and compared with the general population.
Jacqui Morrissey, the assistant director for policy, practice and influencing at Samaritans, said: “University can be an exciting but challenging time, so it is vital that students have support available – and feel encouraged to open up about their feelings.
“While student suicide rates are lower than the general population, both the government and universities need to take appropriate action to ensure that suicide is not seen as a taboo subject.
“Talking about what you’re really going through can be life-changing – ultimately it is silence that costs lives.”
Exeter University said it was deeply saddened by Armstrong Evans’ death. It said: “Following the inquest, we have undertaken a detailed review of the many ways in which we support student mental health and wellbeing, and we have introduced further enhancements across our university community.”
In the past six years there had been five confirmed deaths by suicide of Exeter University students, determined by coroners, as well as three deaths of students that the university understands are likely to be determined as suicide at forthcoming inquests, and three suicides of people who were on interruptions from their studies, often for a considerable time, and not registered students.
In the UK, the youth suicide charity Papyrus can be contacted on 0800 068 4141 or email firstname.lastname@example.org, and in the UK and Ireland Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 988 and you can text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counsellor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org
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