Parents urge UK universities to reveal student suicide rates | Universities

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The parents of a 21-year-old student at the University of Exeter who took his own life after failing final-year exams have called for new legislation to require universities to publish the number of students who have killed themselves at their institutions.

Harry Armstrong Evans, from Cornwall, was in the third year of a physics and astrophysics degree at the Russell Group university at the time of his death in June 2021, which will be the subject of an inquest this week.

Harry’s parents, Rupert and Alice Armstrong Evans, who have accused the university of shortcomings, want the government to adopt what they have called “Harry’s law”, under which universities would have to publish the annual student suicide rate at their institution, and which faculty those students were studying in.

They say the Department for Education (DfE) should be given powers to investigate and place universities in special measures where a suicide rate exceeds that of the national average. The legislation would also make it mandatory for personal and academic tutors to undergo and record their attendance at mental health awareness training.

Harry was one of 11 students at Exeter who were reported to have taken their own lives in the last six years, among them Joel Rees, 20, who was also studying physics and astrophysics and ended his life in 2017. The university said not all have been officially confirmed as suicide by the coroner.

Alice Armstrong Evans said: “When we were looking at university options, Harry purposefully chose somewhere close to home. He was quite shy, but the university proudly publicised great wellbeing services and pastoral support.

“Nowhere did we read about the number of students who had taken their own life or indeed that, just a year prior, someone on the same course Harry had selected had committed suicide.”

Figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in May showed the suicide rate for higher education students in the academic year ending 2020 in England and Wales was three deaths per 100,000 students, the lowest rate in four years.

A University of Exeter spokesperson said: “We are deeply saddened by Harry’s death and the family’s loss. The university is fully engaged with the coroner’s inquest this week, which will report the facts and it would be completely inappropriate to comment further until the inquest has concluded.

“We can say, however, that we have invested significantly in student welfare and wellbeing support in recent years and we are acutely aware of the current mental health challenges for young people. We provide support services seven days a week both on campus and in the community, including throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Student health and wellbeing is always the University of Exeter’s top priority.”

A DfE spokesperson said a new dataset has also been commissioned to better inform universities’ suicide prevention work. “The mental health and wellbeing of students, including suicide prevention, is of paramount importance to the government, which is why this year we asked the Office for Students to allocate £15m towards student mental health.”

  • In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email [email protected] You can contact the mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or visiting mind.org.uk.

  • In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org

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