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Focus on student suicide means the media is missing the real story about our young

A suicide prevention campaign is launched at London Waterloo station. Photo: Matt Alexander/PA - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

A lot of recent focus in the media has been on suicide among students in higher education – but it’s missing the bigger picture, argues COLIN TALBOT.

Student suicides and mental health issues have been much in the news recently. There are undoubtedly issues to be addressed and there has been a rise in student suicides.

Universities have been attacked for not providing sufficient support and for putting too much pressure on students. Worries induced by student loans have been suggested as part of the reason for the rise.

Last year the Office for National Statistics published a report digging in to the student numbers. They confirmed that there was indeed a small rise in student suicides. They did point out the numbers are very small (less than 100) so the upward trend since about 2007/08 did not necessarily signify an underlying change – the numbers have spiked before and then returned to less than 60 a year for no obvious reason.

But there is a much bigger problem that is being neglected, especially by the media. What about the young people who don’t continue into higher education? The ONS report did not tell us anything directly about them – the majority of 18 to 24-year olds.

Using data on students numbers in each age group I have re-analysed the ONS data and it tells a very different story to the headlines. The suicide rate for non-students in the 18-24-year-old group is between twice and three times as high as it is for students.

In the 18-20 age group there are 2.8 student suicides, per 100,000, per year. But amongst non-students in the same age group it is nine deaths per year – over three times as high. Students in higher education make up 37% of this group.

In the 21 to 24-year-old cohort the figure for students is 4.9 and for non-students 9.5 – almost twice the student level. Students only make up 17% of this age group, meaning the vast majority of suicides are by young people not at university.

Professor Louis Appleby of the University of Manchester, who leads

the National Suicide Prevention Strategy for England, told me that “non-student rates would surprise a lot of people”. Indeed.

Why? Young people who are seen, and probably see themselves, as failures are more likely to suffer from mental health problems than those who have ‘made it’ to university. University entry is still skewed towards the better off, which means those who don’t go are more likely to be from poorer families with fewer resources and suffering from greater financial stress.

“There’s been a lot of alarm over student suicides in the last few years,” said Appleby, “and the ONS report

was important in confirming that students actually have a low rate, i.e. they are protected, as you might expect in a group who are better educated and more affluent.”

Young people who have not gone to university may well be poorer themselves and more likely to be in low paid, insecure and often demoralising employment or not employed at all.

Finally, cuts to local government and primary care budgets means there is growing crisis in young people’s mental health services. By contrast, most universities have such services available for students and staff.

As Appleby added: “It’s a reminder that suicide is driven by social disadvantage and family adversity even if this doesn’t fit the prevailing narrative.”

So why is all the focus on universities? Most of the media is populated by parents of students or people who have recently been students themselves. The parents of students tend to be better off, better educated and more adept at getting attention. And last, but not least, most politicians have been to university, will have student-age children or have recently been through that experience, so they can ‘relate’ to the university-based problems more easily.

The experience of parents who have lost a child to suicide at university should not be belittled. Having lost my younger brother to a sudden violent death (not suicide) in 1982 I have some idea what it must be like. And we’ve had our share of mental health problems in the family. There is much more universities can do, and are doing, to help reduce this problem.

Universities are an easy target – especially in the age of populism. And for policymakers they are a much easier problem to focus on and ‘fix’ – there are only 160 of them. Not tens of thousands of employers, GPs and local authorities to deal with as there are for the majority of young people.

But we also should not allow this to blind us to the much bigger problem of the young people who have been truly ‘left behind’ in the race to expand higher education. It is typical of the neglect of this group.

When the government-commissioned review by financier Philip Augar was published in May, one reputable national newspaper produced a leader with a headline about “the Augar review into higher education fees”.

The Augar review was into all post-18 education and funding. But as usual much of the media, and politicians, focussed only on the bits of the report about students and ignored or played down the rest of its recommendations for the majority who don’t go to university.

It is clearly difficult to get a university-educated media, political class and civil service to focus on non-students – whether its suicides or funding. One solution to this blind-spot is simply to make the evidence more obvious. The ONS should, for example, repeat their study on students for the rest of the population. I had to get separate data on the proportion of students by age group to be able to calculate suicide rates amongst non-students, since it wasn’t obvious from the ONS report.

Suicide policy debates in Whitehall do cover both students and non-students, but you would not know that from the coverage. The civil service and NHS leaders have some responsibility to highlight the problem amongst ‘left behind’ youngsters and push for greater debate and action?

As someone who left school at 16 and worked for five years before going to university, and was almost 40 before I became an academic, I have been on both sides of the fence. It’s more than time we stopped neglecting those who don’t go to university.

Professor Colin Talbot is a co-director at Cambridge Policy Labs and research associate at the Centre for Business Research, University of Cambridge

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