Why Are Student Suicides Rising?

Students are under more pressure than ever before, and the grim reality is that student suicides have increased by over 50 per cent since 2007

Why Are Student Suicides Rising?

by Olivia Petter |
Published on

Five students at The University of Bristol have reportedly taken their own lives in the last six months.The statistics are staggering: according to the ONS, the amount of suicides by students in England and Wales has risen by over 50 per cent since 2007. Meanwhile, the demand for mental health services at UK universities has doubled in the last three years and a new study reveals that one in four young women report mental health problems. These are the highest figure on record and, historically, the under 30 age group has had lower suicide rates than 30-59 year-olds. So, why are student suicides on the rise?

‘Suicide is extremely complex’ psychiatrist Dr Alberto Pertusa, tells The Debrief: ‘we don’t have studies to know what works and what doesn’t. Although poor mental health increases the risk of suicide, most people who take their own lives don’t have diagnosable conditions, very often the problem is with the environment.’ While certain environmental pressures have always existed for students - debt, exams, navigating a new social sphere - today there are arguably more than ever before. Once you’ve solved the existential riddle of deciding what you want to do with your life, you have to scavenge your way into a highly competitive job market, where decently paid graduate roles are few and far between, conjure up a viable living situation/accept that your new roommates are your parents, and ensure that you get at least a 2:1 in order to even pass go. Not to mention the increasingly volatile political landscape: it started with Brexit (which 75% of those aged 18-24 voted against); culminated in governmental upheaval and has left us with a shock snap election.‘It makes me feel unheard’ says Naomi, a final year Cardiff student, ‘as older generations continue to vote against us, millennials are left feeling more and more isolated.’

It’s no coincidence that today’s graduates will be some of the first to have paid the higher tuition fees of £9,000 a year that were invoked in 2012. This leaves them with at least £27,000 in student debt when they leave - excluding additional maintenance loans which can raise this figure to an excess of £50,000. Even though no graduate will be treated as though they've taken out a payday loan, it's well known that the psychological impact of debt can be great, causing stress, anxiety and strain.

These pressures will affect most of us to some extent, but for those struggling with mental health - they become debilitating. ‘Many young people find it hard to even recognise or know that they have a difficulty they could get help for; others feel ashamed or stigmatised and so don't seek help” says Philippa Donald, a psychotherapist at Harley Therapy. Could part of the problem be down to something as intrinsic as rhetoric? Words like ‘depressing’, ‘hyper’, ‘anxious’ and ‘bipolar’ have become a flippant part of our daily vocabulary. Lily, a recent graduate who has suffered from depression since her first year, finds this frustrating: ‘we talk about it all the time, “that film was depressing” or “they drive me crazy” - these words have become negligible so what we’re going through no longer feels legitimate because it’s verbally commonplace’. In turn, this trivialises our perception, Lily continues: ‘depression goes far beyond feeling low, it’s a feeling of total nothingness, it’s chemical. When I wake up the first thought I have is "fuck."’

Mental health has never been more at the forefront of public consciousness. Everyone from Prince Harry to Lady Gaga to David Tennant has opened up about their own experiences in recent months; there have also been countless campaigns launched to spread awareness via social media. While it’s commendable for prolific figures to speak up, how constructive is it for them to vaguely reference their struggles when, ultimately, their fame makes them utterly unrelatable? Mental health has even made its way into the cultural zeitgeist: 13 Reasons Why, a Netflix series produced by Selena Gomez, documents the story of 17-year-old Hannah, who takes her own life before the show begins. While critics have praised the programme for its progressive subject matter, parents and teachers have condemned its romanticised portrayal of teenage suicide, which is eerily portrayed through a series of pre-recorded tapes made by Hannah before she dies. It’s a produced, soundtracked and glamourised lens for what is an absolutely unglamorous issue - how helpful is this? As Philippa points out: ‘there is little point in raising people's awareness if there are no services to refer them on to’. While all this might be effectively reducing stigma, how necessary is this now? “It’s kind of cool to be fucked up”, says Flora, a second-year student struggling with anxiety, ‘it’s become a symbol for having an interesting life; quite a lot of the people we look up to are screwed up. Their cool factor is amplified by this darkness to the point where it’s conceived as heroic and artistic’. This fetishisation is unnerving to say the least, leading us to believe that confessing one’s mental health struggles has become a kind of fad.

When you’re a student, particularly a first-year, you are almost expected to be perennially buoyant, even when the opposite is true. ‘I know that I have a really good façade’ says Flora, ‘you have to fool people into thinking you’re fine otherwise they’ll probe’. The easiest form of tomfoolery in 2017? Social media, of course: what says ‘I’m great!!!!” better than a Valencia-hued Insta? Sharing a filtered version of our lives has become integral to our social existence, particularly for students, who have grown up with this technology. We are a generation obsessed by the self-fashioned ego; i.e. we’re too busy updating our Snapchat story to live in the moment. Unsurprisingly, there are endless studies which show how social media usage can worsen our overall mental wellbeing. ‘I’m addicted to likes’ Flora continues, ‘it’s validation that you’re okay’.

When it comes to seeking treatment, sadly it’s not as easy as you’d like it to be. In order to qualify for NHS care you have to meet a very specific set of requirements: ‘provisions for young people are hugely compromised at the moment. Treatment is only offered for a very narrow, highly prescriptive range of conditions’ notes Philippa. However, most universities offer free counselling services and some even have dedicated mental health departments where you can find a whole range of resources. If you’re unsure of where to seek help on campus it’s worth browsing your university’s website or meeting with your personal tutor, it’s part of their role to direct you to on-site services. Occasionally though, you may need to venture off campus to get the support you need. It’s best to avoid cities if possible: in central London psychiatric assessments can cost as much as £500, and that’s before you’ve tackled your prescription. ‘My card got declined yesterday when I tried to pay for my anti-depressants, how depressing is that?!’ laughs Flora.

Evidently, the environment for students - and young people in general - has never felt so fractured. Financially, politically and even socially - we are in a state of high flux where control is barren. For an already volatile twenty-something, it can feel like that recurring nightmare where you’re screaming at the top of your lungs and nobody hears you. Yes it’s brilliant, if not a little predictable, that we're seeing a surge of public interest surrounding mental health at the moment. But this is merely a small step in a marathon that lies ahead. Access to treatment, funding in schools - which Theresa May’s latest pledge will hopefully address - and a more educated understanding, these are the things we really need to focus on if things are to improve. Let’s just hope that mental health awareness isn’t the trend that falls out of fashion.

***If you need to talk call Samaritans on 116 123 ***

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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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