You’d want to save everyone, wouldn’t you?’ - University of Bristol outlines suicide prevention strategy

BristolWorld spoke to the University on the third day of our focus on student suicide

The University of Bristol has outlined its suicide prevention strategy after 14 students within the institution took their own lives over the course of five years.

The figures, revealed in an FOI request to the University by BristolWorld, show that there were seven student suicides in 2018, two in 2019, two in 2020 and three in 2021.

The University doesn’t want to comment on individual cases or why it thinks there was an increase in student suicides in 2018 and 2021.

Alison Golden, director of Student Health and Inclusion at the University, told BristolWorld that it was difficult to ‘pull common threads’ out of the ‘relatively low’ numbers.

Nineteen students have died from suicide at Bristol's two universities since 2018

But she agreed to speak to us about what the University has been doing to combat the issue, keen to stress from the off that students are statisically less likely to take their own lives than young people who don’t enter higher education.

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This could be down to the fact that students within universities tend to have a wider variety of support available to them with quick response times, when usually they’d have to wait for a GP appointment.

No ‘one size fits all’ approach

If a student needs help, the University of Bristol operates a ‘single point of access’ for support services which entails the student, their relative, friend or lecturer submitting a form, emailing or telephoning in to outline their concerns.

There’s no ‘one size fits all approach’ says Alison, each case is indivudal, and it could be that the student is referred to a wellbeing advisor, for counselling or to disability services depending on the problem.

In some cases, a student will be referred to the Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership, particularly if they are in crisis or need acute, long-term care.

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“If a student is suicidal and has a plan, it wouldn’t be for us an organisation to kind of hold that- that person needs to be seen and assessed by a mental health practitioner,” said Alison.

“We had something up until recently called the practitioner’s forum where representatives from Bristol University and the AWP met regularly to discuss how services were going, and we have plans to continue that after a hiatus.

“It’s really important that the AWP understands what universities can provide, and vice versa. It’s a frequent two-way dialogue for us.”

‘Our focus is on the preventative’

The university also operates a 24-hour service supporting students living in halls of residence, a personal tutor system and ‘same day’ mental health appointments within student services that last for 20 minutes (a standard GP appointment only lasts for 10).

There appears to be a wealth of support available, but the focus is ‘on the preventative’ where possible.

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“We all have a spectrum of mental health and not everyone needs a diagnosis,” said Alison.

“We have a range of self-help resources and some fantastic clubs and societies that we urge students to engage with.

“We continue to support the student union’s Dare to Care campaign and try to encourage sport, exercise and healthy living.

“We’re keen on our community-building activites. Loneliness and isolation are terrible for human beings. We all need those connections in our lives.”

Remote support remains after some students found it helpful

This became apparent during the peak of the pandemic, when the University were forced to divert to delivering student support services remotely.

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There’s still a hybrid model in place, but staff actually found that the changes imposed during the pandemic were helpful to some students.

“For instance, within disability services the ‘do not attend’ rate has improved due to the switch,” said Alison.

“Some students just prefer to open their laptop for an appointment rather than having to travel to us.

“For other services such as counselling, students do still prefer face-to-face, so we’ve reverted back to this predominately but still offer a remote option.

“This works particularly well for students who might not be based in Bristol - of course, we have the Langford campus (a veterinary school based 14 miles south of Bristol) to think about.

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“Students studying medicine for example have very full timetables, so it’s actually much more conveninent for them to have an online appointment at the end of their day.”

‘For the vast majority, things improve’

Alison’s message to any student or young person struggling with a mental health issue is clear: “It’s probably going to get better.”

She said: “You're not going to feel like this forever. Speak to somebody - get some support.

“It doesn't have to be from the University. It can be from your GP, your family or a friend - but people will want to help. Things can change.

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“I think we tend to focus on the people who, tragically, take their own lives. We don’t focus on the people who get better and perhaps look back a year later and think ‘things were difficult for me back then, but I got through it’.

“We’ve had 8,000 students access our Wellbeing Access team this year. And for the vast majority of them, things will improve.

“Therapy may help, medication may help, a change in situation may help. But there’s no coming back from suicide.”

Mental health sector ‘not meeting demands’ of the nation

Alison reiterated that students form only a sub-set of the younger population, for which suicide remains a leading cause of death.

She said: “A lot of the time the focus is on students but where is the voice for young people outside of higher education? I do think that gets lost.

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“Any death of a young person, regardless of the reason, is devastating. But complicated data is an issue. When we look at the figures, young people don’t make up a large proportion of deaths, thank god.

“But suicide is listed as one of the major causes of death among this demographic because young people don’t tend to die of those longer-term chronic illnesses that older people do.

“The numbers are relatively small, so small that a slight increase can look jarring.

“I think it’s always worth stepping back and looking at the broader issue of suicide as a whole.”

‘You’d want to save everyone, wouldn’t you?’

Asked for her views on the state of the mental health sector in the UK, Alison replied: “The people on the ground are working way above capacity in the NHS. I have endless respect for what they do.

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“But it’s not meeting the demands of the nation as a whole, no. What I will say is that it’s important to remember that not everyone who takes their own life is known to service, or might not even have spoken to anybody.

“It’s not necessarily a failure of a service or an individual. Everyone tries really hard to the best of their ability to support that person. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes it’s not enough.

“You’d want to save everyone, wouldn’t you? And that’s an admirable ambition, but a difficult one to achieve.”

Anyone can call the Samaritans for free on 116 123, email [email protected] or visit http://samaritans.org.