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Book Review: Preventing and Responding to Student Suicide: A Practical Guide for FE and HE Settings by Sharon Mallon and Jo Smith (eds.) (London, 2022)

  • 16 February 2022
  • By Laura Brassington

HEPI’s Policy Manager, Dr Laura Brassington, reviews Sharon Mallon and Jo Smith (eds.). 2022. Preventing and Responding to Student Suicide: A Practical Guide for FE and HE Settings. With a foreword by Rosie Tressler, OBE. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. ISBN 978-1-78775-418-8. 400pp. £40.00. 

The publication of Preventing and Responding to Student Suicide: A Practical Guide for FE and HE Settings represents a milestone for FE and HE in the UK and internationally. As far as the authors are aware, it is the first book ‘that specifically and uniquely focuses on suicide in an educational setting rather than a healthcare context’. Across 23 chapters, academics, healthcare professionals, and policymakers address understanding and preventing suicide among students (Part I) and ‘postvention’, or interventions aimed at supporting those directly affected by student suicide (Part II). Each chapter meets the authors’ common goal, to be ‘accessible but not overly informal’. The topics, which range from theoretical perspectives on student suicide, to responding to the needs of families, students, and staff after a student suicide, are further united by the authors’ shared aim ‘to persuade individuals and institutions that student suicide prevention and postvention are important and key components of 21st century FE and HE support’.

The problem

The book is underpinned by the latest data. As Dr Joanna McLaughlin and Professor David Gunnell state in Chapter I, ‘suicide is one of the most frequent causes of premature death in young people’. I was, however, surprised to learn that the ‘rate of suicide is lower among students than general population of similar ages’. McLaughlin and Gunnell’s research reveals that the overall rate of suicide in students is 4.4 deaths per 100,000, compared with 11.6 deaths per 100,000 in the general population.

There is a clear gender imbalance. The rate of male deaths is 6.6 in the student population compared with 18.0 in the general population; in females, the figure is 2.7 in students, compared to 5.2 in the general population. The suicide rate in the UK is increasing. In young females (up to 24 years), suicide is at its highest rate since 1981. The leading cause of death in males aged between 10 and 49, and in females between 10 and 34, is suicide and injury or poisoning of undetermined intent.

As McLaughlin and Gunnell make clear, students do face specific pressures. Stressors include:

the transition to personal and financial responsibility upon moving to a higher education institution, altered levels of family contact and support, academic pressures and exposures to new cultures around alcohol and drugs.

The authors identify the following risk factors specific to HEI settings which policymakers should be aware of: suspension of studies, repeating a year and changing course. 

More than data

Simply supplying good quality research evidence is not sufficient in itself to motivate people to change their behaviour

Jo Smith and Sharon Mallon

The chapters feature a range of case studies and examples. In his chapter, ‘Responding to Family Needs after a Student Suicide’, Professor David Mosse:

links what is understood about family needs and the lessons from lived experience to suggest some broad areas for action that need attention to support families after the tragedy of a student death by suicide.

Mosse recalls the tragic loss of his son, a successful postgraduate student, to suicide. What followed was a drawn-out series of enquiries headed by Mosse, as he attempted to make sense of what happened by hearing from individuals and organisations who knew his son. While other chapters focus on the changes individual FE or HE institutions can make, Mosse calls for ‘a nationwide approach to university suicide prevention policy’. There needs to be more ‘open lines of communication’, with particular focus on ‘effective postvention support and investigation’.

Mosse’s conclusions echo those of Diana Beech, Sally Olohan, and James Murray in their chapter, ‘Student Suicide: The Policy Context’. Examining how student suicide became a policy priority for Westminster in 2018, Beech et al call for safeguarding in HE to be focused on the ‘whole lives’ of students – including their practical and emotional needs. Above all, ‘we need to encourage the development of compassionate universities’, the authors conclude.

When my study window was broken by a would-be burglar, victim support contacted the family within 48 hours as mandated. After my son killed himself, there was nothing.

David Mosse

While Mosse was familiar with the structures of the university, mental health nurse and senior lecturer Clare Dickens addresses the particular problems faced by first-in-family students. Dickens’s chapter, ‘Supporting Students: The Role of the NHS’ addresses the ‘chronic gap between needs and resources’. Dickens draws on the case study of ‘Luka’, a third-year civil engineering undergraduate, who ‘doesn’t even know any [civil engineers] beyond the course academic staff, while his peers either have family members who are engineers or have associated connections’. Dickens examines the effects of social disconnection, fears of failure, and concerns about the job market after graduation.

Dickens also co-authors a chapter with fellow mental health nurse and senior lecturer, Stuart Guy, in which she discusses the role of language in how we deal with issues of suicide. The authors ‘do not believe that people “commit” suicide, nor does anyone “successfully” die by suicide and nor are suicide attempts “failed”’. At the same time, the authors resist prescribing a list of words to use or words to avoid, for fear that ‘policing people’s language’ may deter people from engaging in discussion of the topic at all.

In the final chapter, Lorna Fraser, the Executive Lead for Samaritans’ Media Advisory Service, provides a set of concrete recommendations for journalists. Fraser’s recommendations include remaining sensitive to those affected by a death and avoiding providing details of suicide methods, sensational speculation, and dramatic headlines on front pages.

The Second Edition

This important collection of essays from a wide range of authors offers useful tools to guide policymakers, institutions, individuals, and families and represents a significant step in addressing the topic of suicide in educational settings. Readers of the next edition will doubtless be interested to learn more about the impact of COVID-19 on student wellbeing. A second volume might also shed more light on the particular challenges faced by postgraduate students, regional variation across the UK, data from non-English-speaking countries, and individual student voices.

I am grateful to the authors and publishers for a review copy of their work.

Relevant links:

Children’s Mental Health Week (7-13 February 2022)

University Mental Health Day (3 March 2022)

Mental Health Awareness Week (9-15 May 2022). 

The Samaritans’: call 116 123 free or email jo@samaritans.org for 24-hour support in the UK and ROI.

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