5 ways to support students at risk of suicide 

As the rate of young people taking their own lives rises, colleges must offer tailored support for those at risk, say experts

Kate Parker

Mental health: 5 ways to support students at risk of suicide 

Mental health and wellbeing provision is commonplace in most colleges these days – as of November 2020, 164 colleges are signed up to the Association of Colleges Mental Health Charter. But an important question remains: how much of the support specifically tackles the risk of suicide?

According to the Samaritans, the suicide rate for females under the age of 25 increased by 93.8 per cent between 2012 and 2019. Across both genders, statistics show that suicide is the biggest killer of young people – in 2018, 759 young people took their own life in the UK and Republic of Ireland. 

Jo Smith, emeritus professor of early intervention and psychosis at the University of Worcester, tells Tes that colleges can – and should – play a key role in preventing suicide among young people. She says it is not enough to have mental health provision in place – there must be specific support on suicide, too.  

So what should colleges do?

Create a culture of listening and compassion

Dr Liz Scowcroft, head of research at the Samaritans, says that each college will be starting at a different point with suicide prevention – but the key is to take small steps and then build on the provision gradually. The first step, she says, must be to create a culture of listening and compassion. 

“It’s important not to be put off by thinking, ‘well we’re right at the beginning, and we've got to get a policy and wait until we put it in place’. Any small steps are helpful – it’s about starting those conversations and building up until you’ve got more concrete procedures and policies that are effective, and are going to help everybody in that setting,” she says. 

She adds that colleges will know their students best, and will know how to tailor support to every situation and every trigger. 

Need to know: 17k college students receive regular counselling

Tes magazine: How to support students at risk of suicide

News: 'If we educate people on suicide, we will save lives'

Train staff in conversations 

Emma Fairhurst, a manager for the Hopeline operated by suicide charity Papyrus, says that it’s important that college staff receive training in how to ask students about suicide. She says that often, many are scared of the answer – and therefore don’t ask the question.

“We really encourage anyone to ask about thoughts of suicide clearly and directly. Use the term “suicide” or ask, ‘are you thinking of killing yourself?’. Be that direct. If they say they are thinking of harming themselves, that could be a bit ambiguous. Being clear and direct is crucial so that we can know how best to support them,” she says. 

Smith agrees and says that all staff – including catering and security staff – should be trained in how to talk to students about suicide. 

“Security staff can find themselves in all sorts of roles, both in terms of prevention and 'post-vention'. Often, they’re the ones who actually find a body and they need support,” she says.

“There’s something about looking at who students have conversations with – for example, catering staff – and thinking about how they get involved. If it’s a casual conversation, make sure they’ve got the tools, know helpful things to say and know who to alert. It needs to be in your infrastructure.” 

Make the most of local partnerships 

Smith says that all colleges need to foster strong local partnerships. 

“Many institutions act as islands rather than seeing themselves within the context of a broader community. In terms of suicide prevention, local authority and public health have the lead on that and there's value in connecting with them to pick up resources, funding, opportunities and partnerships,” she says. 

At East Coast College, the wellbeing team has fostered a close relationship with the local council which helps them to identify triggers in students. 

“We've worked really closely with Great Yarmouth Borough Council to ensure that we've got an idea of what the locality triggers might be,” says Nikki Lane, assistant principal student wellbeing. 

“For example, if we know that there’s a high number of Universal Credit applications sitting and waiting, we know there might be a pinch point financially for people. If there's a rise in homelessness, we might be looking at families that have been displaced in the local area.”

When these situations occur, Lane and her team then ensure that during tutorial times, these topics are covered with repeated messaging signposting to where and how students can speak to someone. 

Introduce safety plans 

Fairhurst highlights the importance of developing a “safety plan” with young people. 

To develop a safety plan, questions must first be asked about how and when the young person plans to complete suicide. Barriers should then be put in place that make that plan harder to carry out  – for example, for students, actions might include deactivating their student card so they can’t leave the building in a hurry, or planning a route around the college so that a certain toilet in which self-harm has occurred before is avoided.

Fairhurst says it’s all about keeping that young person safe in the moment. She recommends that, at the very least, colleges are aware of any safety plans a student might already have. 

Review when things have gone wrong 

Smith says that in the event that something does go wrong with a student, colleges should review their policies and procedures, and seek to improve them. 

“Colleges should review and try to learn from untoward incidents. There will be things where they could think about training needs, about pathways, or where particular policies and guidance are working in a negative way,” she says. 

Key resources for college staff 

Call the Samaritans Step by Step service on 0808 168 2528

Call the Papyrus Helpline on 0800 068 4141

Building suicide-safer schools and colleges: A guide for teachers and staff

Conversation starters 

How to spot the signs 

Help when we needed it most

DEAL: Developing Emotional Awareness and Listening 

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Kate Parker

Kate Parker is a FE reporter.

Find me on Twitter @KateeParker

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