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Researcher cautions against initiatives to reduce student suicide that lack evidence

BMJ 2018; 362 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k3969 (Published 19 September 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;362:k3969
  1. Laura Nunez-Mulder
  1. The BMJ

Universities are implementing policies to reduce suicide among students and improve mental health with little evidence that they will make any difference, a researcher has warned.

A total of 5821 suicides were reported in the UK in 2017, 10.1 deaths per 100 000 population, a proportion among the lowest since records began in 1981.1 About one in 60 deaths by suicide in 2017 (95) were carried out by a student in higher education.12

Data also show that the proportion of university students declaring a mental health condition has more than tripled in recent years, from 0.8% in 2010-11 to 2.5% in 2016-17.3

Nicola Byrom, primary investigator of the Student Mental Health Research Network (SMarTeN), said that some universities had introduced schemes to try to tackle a rising prevalence of mental health problems among students, especially after the launch of the #stepchange campaign by Universities UK to encourage higher education institutions to make mental health a strategic priority.

The University of Oxford has been training selected students to provide peer support through a 25 year old formal programme, the University of Cumbria offers suicide prevention training to all staff, and Bangor University provides lectures on building resilience.

But despite such initiatives among higher education institutions, Byrom said, speaking on 13 September at a Science Media Centre briefing in London on suicide among students, “As a researcher I’m really concerned that UK universities are taking steps to address student mental health problems without a strong research base to inform their strategic decisions.”

The little evidence that does exist indicates that changing the structure of course assessment, increasing a sense of belonging, and providing mindfulness courses could be successful interventions, said Byrom. For example, a randomised control trial of 616 students at the University of Cambridge showed mindfulness to be protective against psychological distress during the examination period.4

Last week SMarTeN, which is led by the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London, received a £1m grant from UK Research and Innovation, the body that works with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities, and the government to promote research and innovation. SMarTeN is one of eight new mental health networks announced by UK Research and Innovation two weeks ago to “further our understanding about the causes, development and treatments of a wide range of mental health issues.”

The network will provide a platform for researchers, students, and teachers to collaborate in student mental health research, online and through workshops and conferences. It has also commissioned four student led projects that will form the basis of a research strategy.

Byrom cautioned against a “one size fits all” approach to attempts to tackle mental health problems among students. “Every institution is different, and their student profiles are different. One of the messages that we’re working on with Universities UK is to encourage individual institutions to better understand their student profile and to test things within their institution. It’s a frustrating picture to put out there, but I don’t think we’re likely to get a universal [solution],” she said.

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