Call a suicidal student’s family even without consent, universities told

Student suffering from depression
Student suffering from depression

Parents or a close friend or carer should be called if there are serious concerns about a student's mental health, universities have been told.

New guidance has been released by Universities UK, which represents the higher education sector, and Papyrus, a charity, on how universites can be more proactive in preventing suicides.

Universities should make it mandatory for students to give a “trusted contact” at registration, who can be called if a university is worried about a student’s safety or mental health, they said.

The guidance stated that while it is preferable to gain the consent of a student before contacting their families or friends, if a university has serious concerns they should involve trusted contacts without a student’s permission.

It is the first time that such a strategy on how and when to contact families about mental health concerns has been proposed for universities.

Between the academic years ending in 2017 and 2020, there were 319 student suicides, of which 202 were men and 117 were women, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Parents critical of universities

Parents of students who have taken their own lives have criticised universities for not telling them their child was facing problems, because they might have been able to help.

James Murray, the father of a Bristol University student who died by suicide, has campaigned for a change to data protection rules to prevent further deaths at universities.

His son Ben, 19, died in 2018. The family only found out after his death that Ben had been falling behind in his studies, missing lectures and had been put in a “withdrawal process” by the university, which was considering his “fitness to study”.

Universities have previously said that under data protection laws, they are unable to share confidential information about students without their express permission.

However, the Information Commissioner’s Office has clarified that data protection law allows universities to share students’ personal data if it is “to prevent serious harm to the physical or mental wellbeing of a student in an emergency situation, or protect a life”.

'More expectations on universities'

A survey by the Higher Education Policy Institute in 2019 showed that 66 per cent of students agreed that parents or a guardian should be contacted about mental health concerns “under extreme circumstances”, while 15 per cent agreed parents should be contacted “under any circumstances”. Only 18 per cent of students were against the policy.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that pastoral care expectations have increased as university fees have risen. “There’s more expectations on universities and parents have become much more involved,” he said.

However, he said that “universities, like the rest of society, should do absolutely everything they can to reduce suicide rates and if that means a phone call then it absolutely should happen. Sometimes a suicide is very hard to stop, but sometimes they can be stopped”.

The parents of Harry Armstrong Evans, a 21-year-old student at the University of Exeter who took his own life last year, said the guidance was “a small step in the right direction”.

However, they said it did not “go far enough in protecting the welfare of young people who are under extraordinary amounts of mental and academic pressure, at a point in their lives when they are transitioning from child to adulthood”.

Harry’s father Rupert, 72, and mother Alice, 63, are calling on universities to be legally required to publish annually student suicide rates.

They also want the Department for Education to be given powers to place universities into “special measures” if the institution’s suicide rate is above the national average.

An inquest into the death of Harry Armstrong Evans was held on Thursday
An inquest into the death of Harry Armstrong Evans was held on Thursday

On Thursday, an inquest heard that Harry died after his mental health declined during lockdown, after becoming worried about his family's financial future and failing some of his university exams.

A University of Exeter spokesman said: “We are deeply saddened by Harry’s death and the family's loss.

“The university is fully engaged with the coroner's inquest this week which will report the facts, and it would be completely inappropriate to comment further until the inquest has concluded.

“We can say, however, that we have invested significantly in student welfare and wellbeing support in recent years and we are acutely aware of the current mental health challenges for young people.”