UK Student Suicide Figures: What Actually Are They, and Should They Be Published?
It has been suggested that the student suicide figures published by ONS are not robust, and that there is a lack of data with which to show an increasing trend in student suicides. This blog outlines public data that appears to show increases in student suicide rates, especially amongst female students, and explores how authorities such as Universities UK have used the figures.
The public health approach promoted by the World Health Organisation advocates the continuous and systematic monitoring and surveillance of health-related data, to allow for public health practice to be properly planned, implemented and evaluated. It is important to consider whether this is currently being done with regards to the health of the UK’s 2.3 million students in higher education.
UK Student Suicide Figures
Figures were requested by email from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the National Records of Scotland (NRS) and the Northern Ireland Statistics Research Agency (NISRA) in September 2017. ONS and NRS supplied the figures in September 2017, and NISRA supplied Northern Ireland figures in November 2017.
The figures were supplied without any indication that they might be inaccurate, and ONS figures remain published online at the time of writing. Although the number of female suicides in England & Wales has increased sharply, the figures have not been subjected to any review or population-based analysis by ONS in the 8 months they have been published, and have been widely cited, including by Universities UK and the government health secretary.
Unfortunately the ONS figures have also been widely been used incorrectly, both in the media and in official reports. In a report on UK student mental health published in September 2017 from the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), funded by Universities UK, the total number of UK student suicides in 2015 is incorrectly given as 134 (p.4), This figure considerably underrepresents UK student suicide figures released by government agencies (Figure 1), despite the website for the Universities UK ‘Stepchange’ project stating that they worked with the IPPR to “address gaps in evidence on mental health in higher education”. As a consequence of the error, stories published by the Guardian and Independent and BBC about the IPPR report incorrectly give the number of UK student suicides as 134, which would lead readers to underestimate the incidence of student suicide. Over six months later neither IPPR nor Universities UK have corrected these figures.
Later in the report the same figure is repeated with reference to England & Wales students, but it neglects to mention Northern Ireland and Scotland figures. As a UK-wide student mental health report, it would seem reasonable to ask, firstly, why it has not sought to provide UK-wide student suicide figures; and secondly, why only 2015 England & Wales figures were used rather than up to date 2016 figures. Although the figures were not released until requested in September (by the author of this blog), they are available annually on request from August.
Interpreting the Figures
ONS has provided no indication that their student suicide figures are inaccurate, but from the 2016 release they provide a note of caution that the risk of suicide cannot be determined from the figures alone due to annual changes in student population.
Certainly any assessment of the suicide risk to students and of the student suicide trend over time must account for changes in student population. A Universities UK blog alludes to this, however it overestimates the increase in student population by referring to the percentage increase in entrants to HE, rather than the changes in total student population. This provides a misleading picture of the trend in student suicides by underestimating the relevance of the increase in student suicides as a proportion of student population.
Student population figures are published according to academic year by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). In order to correspond these to the annual suicide figures, it is useful to create average calendar year populations using the two adjacent relevant years. This was done for the above table using a ratio of one-third to two-thirds of the two adjacent years as an approximation of when the academic year begins and ends.
The analysis of the figures shows the female student suicide rates for England & Wales and the UK increasing five years consecutively between 2012 and 2016, and more than doubling in England & Wales over the same period. For the sake of comparison, the age-standardised female suicide rate in the UK for 2016 is 5.0 per 100,000. In terms of age-specific groups, ages 15–19 and 20–24 have suicide rates in 2016 of 2.9 and 5.7, respectively.
A note on the population data: The population figures may be underestimated by approximately 8% due to the original source data possibly not including FE students and those at alternative education providers. Based on the datasets of total student populations in HE, FE & AP published by HESA, although the calculated student suicide rates would be reduced, this would not affect the increasing trend in female student suicides, and would still indicate a UK female student suicide rate higher than the age-standardised female suicide rate (5.5 per 100,000 vs. 5.0 per 100,000), although slightly slower than in the 20–24 age group. Despite the relatively low base rate, the magnitude and trend of the increase in female student suicides should be of particular concern.
In terms of Northern Ireland, although it’s probably not helpful to draw comparisons between the incidence of suicide in students and that of the general population due to the small numbers, the increase in Northern Ireland student suicides evident from Figure 1 cannot be explained by changes in student population. By contrast, Scotland does not appear to show an increasing trend in student suicides.
Why Student Suicide Figures are Important
Media stories (such as here) discussing the mental health of students have used student counselling figures, mental health disclosure rates and surveys to speculate on the state of students’ mental health. As has been noted, the problem with doing this is that such figures may at least partially reflect increases in awareness of services and less stigma associated with discussing mental health, and are therefore not necessarily indicative of the prevalence of mental health issues.
Although there may be coding limitations in student suicide figures, if the methods are consistent year-to-year then they provide a benchmark for making progress in addressing acute mental health issues and suicide on campuses, and for ensuring proportionate media portrayals of the issue. Annual changes in student suicide can also be used to combat unhelpful stories of local student suicides that have emerged recently (here and here), which can create distorted views about the prevalence of student suicide. It should therefore be surprising to those with an interest in student welfare that, to date, no UK authorities have taken responsibility for publishing annual student suicide rates.
Concerns about student suicide figures are not new. The author of this blog post (a student at the time) requested student suicide figures via freedom of information request in 2012. The release showed that student suicides in England & Wales had increased since the recession, and media outlets such as the Guardian published a story on the issue. Six years later, neither ONS nor senior UK researchers have taken responsibility for collecting and publishing figures annually and for ensuring that authoritative reports, such as those by Universities UK and IPPR, publish figures accurately (although Universities UK are apparently now working with ONS on an analysis of student suicide data).
While it seems reasonable that authorities should be concerned about the risks of student suicide being overestimated, the underestimating of risk and underreporting of suicide should be of equal concern to stakeholders in student welfare. Policymakers and educators need to decide how to allocate resources based on good information (rather than incorrect figures such as here), and families need to make proportionate decisions about their children going to university, and how closely they ought to be monitored and supported. An authoritative and up-to-date source of information on the incidence of UK student suicide would also be an important step in tackling unhelpful and misinformed reporting in the media.
The obvious solution is for a full analysis of UK student suicide figures to be reported accurately, authoritatively and timely by ONS or an independent authority free from conflicts of interest. At present, while ONS reports suicide figures for the full UK population, and does so annually without requiring ordinary citizens to chase them up, this is unfortunately not yet the case with student suicide.
For any queries about the data, or comments, please email: e.pinkney [at] connect.hku.hk
 If the proportion had been half and half from the adjacent years — which may seem more intuitive to some readers — then the student suicide rate would have been fractionally higher.