|James Thomson, 20 took his life in his second year at|
Bristol University. SWNS
Jack Malvern, The Times, 22 June 2018
A spate of student suicides has been caused by a “cluster effect” rather than failings in pastoral care, an academic at Bristol University has said.
David Gunnell, professor of epidemiology at the university and a leading authority on suicide research, said that it was his instinct that the link between the ten deaths since October 2016 was the result of a phenomenon in which one death in a community can influence another.
Parents of students who killed themselves while studying at the university reacted to the suggestion with anger and distress. They argue that Bristol’s response to the deaths, including plans to spend £1 million on a programme to improve its provision of pastoral care, highlight current shortcomings.
Speaking to The Times, Professsor Gunnell said that each death was an isolated and tragic incident and that any relationship between them should be treated sensitively. “Clearly, right now, we’re in the midst of a series of deaths,” he said. “Does a cluster of suicides indicate something about the broader levels of mental health in this community in which they are living? I don’t think there’s evidence of that.”
His view was shared by the university, which said: “The evidence to date would suggest that the very tragic student deaths we have experienced over the past two years represent a cluster.”
Professor Gunnell noted that the suicide rate in Britain was just over one in 10,000. “So you might expect that in a [university] population of 20,000 people you would expect a death, possibly two, and in some years, none.”
He added a note of caution: “If people are telling a story of student services not being fit for purpose, that can put people off using them at the very time when it is most important for vulnerable people to be seeking help.”
Asked whether he was saying it was the result of bad luck, he said: “I think that’s fair enough . . . We’re dealing with a tragic cluster situation rather than systemic failure.”
Diana Thomson, 63, whose son James, 20, took his own life last October, during his second year as a maths student, said that she was astounded by the suggestion that there had not been systemic failings. “That’s certainly not what they’ve been telling me,” she said.
She drew attention to the university’s announcement in September that it would spend £1 million on wellbeing advisers to improve its pastoral care.
“If there’s no failings, why are they running around like demented idiots putting in all this extra care and support that they’re supposedly putting in? Why are they saying that they’re putting so much money into mental health now? Because they’ve realised that they’ve failed their students.”
Robert and Margaret Abrahart, whose daughter Natasha, 20, died in April, in the second year of a physics degree, disagreed with the suggestion that wellbeing provision was adequate. “We’re very unhappy,” Mr Abrahart said. “We suspect that there have been a number of failures.”
Mrs Abrahart said that she wanted to see a report by Avon and Wiltshire NHS mental health services before she made up her mind. “I think there’s sufficient [concerns] there to warrant an investigation. It could be random. It also may not be. Unless you investigate, you can’t tell.”
James Murray, whose son Ben, 19, was in the first year of an English degree when he died last month, said: “This is not about bashing Bristol. This is about making sure that people don’t accept the status quo as a statistical anomaly or statistically how it is in the rest of society. I think that’s a very dangerous course of action.”
Mr Murray, who wrote an article for the Sunday Times earlier this month is working with the umbrella body Universities UK to introduce measures inclusing an “opt-in” system that would allow parents to be notified of concerns about their child’s mental health.
A Bristol University spokesman said: “As a university we are taking every step we can, working with our students, staff, and health partners to ensure our community is as safe and supportive as we can possibly make it.”