At Christmastime, We Should Reflect On The Impact We Can Have Together

Ross Renton, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Suicide Safer Project Group Chair at the University of Worcester shares an update on the importance of student mental health in the HE sector.

For many within higher education, the Christmas break is something to look forward to, myself included, however for many of our students and staff it can be a time of immense pressure and anxiety. Research in 2015 by the mental health charity, Mind, suggests that more than a third of people with mental health problems have self-harmed to cope with the pressure of Christmas, while nearly half have considered taking their own life.

There is little doubt student mental health has been high on the agenda for the vast majority of institutions this year, no doubt these efforts will be further supported by the highly anticipated launch this month of the Student Minds University Mental Health Charter. The University of Worcester has always been at the forefront of this work, we were early adopters of specialist student mental support and six years ago initiated the high-profile Suicide Safe Project.

We have also been active in sharing our practice and learning from others, including the launch of the National Student Suicide Prevention Community of Practice in October. This was the first of what is hoped to be a series of conferences to share best practice within the sector on addressing concerns surrounding student suicides. Unsurprisingly, the interest within the sector was significant, with fifty universities and organisations attending; including Student Minds, Papyrus UK and University UK.

Image of six people attending the launch of the Student Suicide prevention Community of Practice.
Launch of the National Student Suicide Prevention Community of Practice Conference

At this conference, we shared copies of a short publication on the work we have been doing at the University of Worcester to support suicide prevention at a local and national level. Our ‘Suicide Safer’ project was established as a multi-agency project, designed to harness external expertise and build internal structures and skills to offer the best possible support to students. There was a desire to have an impact beyond the campus, supporting others to develop similar provision.

The project has four key work strands:

  • Campaigning and awareness-raising about mental health and student suicide
  • Education and training on mental health and suicide for staff and students
  • Developing and promoting a range of new resources
  • Developing and contributing to relevant academic research

There is no doubt the project has had a transformative impact on campus, creating a ‘halo effect’ to enhance our wider wellbeing initiatives. This work has been identified as a best practice example in several sector publications and extensively in local and national media. The project was praised by the Secretary of State for Health and, in 2018, we were shortlisted for the Times Higher Education’s Outstanding Support for Students Award.

There are some really impressive examples of good practice in universities. For example Worcester University have adopted a ‘whole University approach’ to suicide prevention.

Royal College of Psychiatrists Written Submission to the All Party Parliamentary Group Suicide Prevention Inquiry (2016)

We will share the outcomes of the research component of our work over the coming year. We have two PhD studentships focused on the themes related to Suicide Safer. One, led by PhD student Chantal Vinyard, is exploring the current picture regarding suicide prevention and response strategies within the UK HE sector. Chantal’s work has received national support from Universities UK, Public Health England, the Department of Health and the Office for National Statistics. A second studentship led by PhD student Hilary Causer is exploring postvention support needs and roles for staff in HE following a student suicide. It is hoped this work will help AHUA members in planning support for staff, including themselves, following the death of a member of our community.

Although the Higher Education and Research Act (2017) is explicit in promoting competition, it does allow for collaboration within the sector and compels the Office for Students to encourage us to do so. I believe mental health support for students and staff must be a key area for us to collaborate on. We should have no desire to be alone at the top a league table on mental health, we need to rise together, it is just too important.

Pro Vice-Chancellor, Ross Renton is the Suicide Safer Project Group Chair at the University of Worcester and member of AHUA.