What is the significance of the ‘increase’ in student suicides?

There has been an increase in the suicide rate among Higher Education students, from 3.8 per 100, 000 in 2006/07 to 4.7 suicides per 100, 000 in 2016/17, according to new data released this week by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

student suicides.png

Google headlines for ‘student suicide’ search, June 26th 2018

NB this isn’t only the latest data, it is also ‘new’ in the sense that this is the first time that the ONS has published data specifically focussing on ‘higher education student’ suicides, so in this sense I guess it is inherently news worthy, and the release of the data on the 25/06 certainly caused quite a stir in the mainstream news and talk shows following the release, with the main focus seeming to be on ‘what we should do about the problem of increasing student suicides’, and the fact that this is ‘new data’.

However, to my mind, while I appreciate the fact that there is an underlying increase in students reporting mental health issues that seems to correlate with the increase in suicide, I also believe there’s reason to be sceptical about the usefulness of the above data, especially since the ONS itself refers to these stats as ‘experimental statistics’.

Below, I summarise what the ONS data tells us about HE student suicides, and then contrast two sociological approaches to interpreting this data: the first being a broadly ‘structuralist’ perspective which accepts that the data is basically valid and asks ‘why are there more student suicides?’ (which was pretty much the narrative in the mainstream news); and a second, broadly Interpretivist approach which questions the validity of this data, and asks whether or not all of this might be something of a moral panic?

What does the data tell us?

Firstly, there has been an increase in the suicide rate among higher education students if we compare the data from 2006/07 to 206/17

student suicide rate 2017.png

However, although the data appears to have stabilized in the the last three years, the ONS reminds us that these rates are based on such low numbers (95 suicides in 2016/17) that it’s hard to draw any statistical significance from these figures.

Secondly, male students are approximately twice as likely to commit suicide than female students

male female student suicide rates england.png

Between the years of 2001 and 2017, a total 1,330 students died from suicide, of which 878 (66%) were male and 452 (34%) were female.

Thirdly, older students are more likely to kill themselves than younger students

student suicide rate age.png

This actually surprised me a little (note to self about ‘stereotypes’ of suicidal students): higher education students aged 30 or over are twice as likely to commit suicide compared to students aged 20 and under.

Some limitations of the above data

I recommend checking out the publication (link above and below at the end) by the ONS, they mention several limitations with this data: for example, the low overall numbers make it hard to draw any conclusions about the suicide rate with any degree of confidence (statistical significance); and the year on year on year data might not be accurate given delays in recording a death as a suicide, due to inquests taking a long time in some instances (e.g. a suicide which happened in 2016 might appear as a recorded suicide in 2017).

What are the underlying ’causes’ of the ‘increase’ in student suicides?

The mainstream media narrative pretty much took the increase in student suicides at face value, and offered up some of the following possible reasons to explain the increase:

  1. The suicide stats are the ‘extreme ‘tip’ of something of a ‘mental health crisis’ in universities – higher number of students are making use of mental health services, which are under-resourced: universities aren’t giving enough support to vulnerable students who are suicidal.
  2. The increase in mental health problems/ suicide could be due to the fact that university life has become more stressful: there’s more pressure to succeed and get at least a 2.1, and students no longer go to university to have ‘three years off’ (like I did ;)).
  3. Related to the above, mental health problems could be related to the ‘double adjustment’ (my invention that!) students have to go through: they have to adjust not only to the fact that university life isn’t as much fun as its been made out to be (at yer glossy open day), and they have to adjust to the fact that they are just not ‘that clever’ (the later probably applies more to hot-housed privately schooled students, and to those students who are more likely to have had their predicted grades inflated).

A broadly Interpretivist approach to understanding these stats… 

Interpretivists would be much more likely to question the validity of these stats, and thus the validity of the view that there is an increase in higher education student suicides, and the opinion that this is something which we should be concerned about.

There are certainly sufficient grounds to be sceptical about these stats:

  • If you were to compare the three year average for 2002/03 to 2004/05 with the three year average for 2014/15 to 20016/17 the ‘increase’ is much less significant.
  • The ONS itself says you cannot draw any significant conclusions from the small numbers used to derive these stats. And again, they even explicitly refer to them as ‘experimental stats’!
  • The overall number of student suicides is half that of the suicide rate in the general population: surely the headlines should be: ‘”great news, going to university helps lower suicide risk”?

There might also be an argument to made that this is something of a moral panic: it seems to me that the media perpetuate the idea that the typical suicidal student is a 19 year old female, when actually this is atypical – a 30+ year old male student is about 4 times more likely to kill himself.

I also think ‘class’ might come into this: Bristol University (A Russel Group, and thus a very middle class  university) has been in the news recently due to its high suicide rates:

bristol university suicides.png

So, might this uncritical news reporting just really be about stoking a moral panic not so much about the ‘increase’ in higher education student suicides (of which there appears to be no significant evidence), but really about the increase in suicide among our ‘precious’ middle class male students? 

Sources 

 

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