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Student suicide rates overtake non-students

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The suicide rate among UK students is higher than among the general population of their age group, say researchers.

A study from the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention says it means for the first time students have a higher suicide rate than non-students.

The Hong Kong-based researchers say that female students were particularly likely to have a higher suicide rate.

Researcher Edward Pinkney says it shows a "real problem in higher education".

The study, to be presented next month at the International Suicide Prevention Conference in New Zealand, has analysed how rates of suicides have changed within the UK student population.

Rising trends

There has been much concern about mental health worries on university campuses – but it has often been argued that suicide rates for students have been lower than the general population.

But the researchers, based at Hong Kong University, say there no longer seems to be this "protective effect against suicide" and student suicide rates have overtaken the overall levels for young adults of similar ages.

Researchers say that between 2007 and 2016, student suicide rates increased by 56% – from 6.6 to 10.3 per 100,000 of the population – based on the most recent figures published by the Office for National Statistics.

The 2016 figures showed 146 student suicides, the highest in records going back to 2001. Between 2001 and 2007, there had been a pattern of falling numbers, but since then numbers have tended to rise.

These figures also do not specify the type of "student", whether at university or some other form of study.

Male students have consistently had higher suicide rates, but the research says there has been a particular increase among female students.

Dr Raymond Kwok, of the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at Hong Kong University, says "female students were almost 20% more at risk of suicide than non-students".

Rise in mental health problems

"Concerns about students' mental health have been increasing since the economic recession, but until now there has been no comprehensive analysis of UK student suicide data," said Edward Pinkney, who has tracked student suicide data and co-authored the analysis.

"This is the first time we can conclusively say that as far as suicide is concerned, there is a real problem in higher education," he said.

There have been warnings about anxiety and mental health worries among university students.

A report published in autumn showed the numbers of students disclosing mental health problems had increased fivefold in a decade.

The analysis – from the Institute of Public Policy Research – showed higher rates of problems among female students.

Sir Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham and a campaigner on student well-being, said: "Student suicide rates and emotional distress levels could be reduced at university if we acted differently.

"More support in transitions, better tutoring and early warning, more peer to peer support, an enhanced sense of belonging, would all enhance wellbeing and reduce risk.

"We are obsessed by reactive policy once students hit the bottom of the waterfall; we need to be putting preventative policies in place to prevent them ever tipping over the edge," said Sir Anthony.

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