Dying for help

BYLINE – Please put on features page and remove from article – Exams can be a stressful time for students, and some may even resort to self-harm. Impact asks: how big is this problem, and what facilities are there to prevent student suicide at Nottingham? – END BYLINE

In 2005, fifty-six men and ten women committed suicide in Nottingham. It’s one of the most important issues currently affecting students at our university, with “two or three suicides [likely to occur here] during the course of a year”, and yet open discussion of the matter is disapproved of, for fear it would encourage others to act on previously dormant impulses. Whether by pills, slit wrists or jumping off tall buildings, it’s happening. 9.3 people per 100,000 commit suicide in the UK every year, and it’s the most common cause of death for men between 18 and 25. So, how many Nottingham University students have committed suicide in the last five years? No idea? Join the club. Unsurprisingly, the university isn’t exactly forthcoming when it comes to talking about this particular bugbear.

One student who took an overdose of pills explained: “I really did want to commit suicide. Nothing was good. I felt like I’d lost everything, and there was just no point in being there…I was too scared to [jump off a building] and I had pills on me [at the time]. It was just convenience, otherwise I would have had to have gone and found a high building. Realistically, I probably would have been too scared to [jump]. At some level it was definitely a cry for help. I took the pills and then I freaked out. I told my housemate and she phoned an ambulance. They told me I’d taken over a lethal dose. I spoke to a psychologist after, but nothing…came of it. I’ve gotten worse in the past few months. If the university had done something about it then, I wouldn’t be like I am now. I’m coming or going at the moment, either really up or really down.”

The tower block on the University Park campus is where the most dramatic suicides at the university occur. Point 7.2 of the Electrical Engineering department’s work and safety protocol notes: “Restrictions are placed on the use of all buildings outside normal working hours…For undergraduates and non-key holders the normal working hours are 8.30am to 6.00pm…[Anyone] in the School outside normal hours must sign the book in the foyer of the Tower building recording their name, time of arrival and departure, and place of work. Undergraduate students are only allowed to work outside of normal hours under exceptional circumstances. They must obtain written permission of their supervisor and the Head of School if they wish to work outside normal hours.”

The tower block is sixteen stories high, with a lift going up to the fifteenth floor. After that, you have to climb the stairs up to the last floor, but a member of the Electrical Engineering department says that “the only people who have access to it are people in [our] office – [they have] keys.” Despite the increased security and tight safety instructions given out by the department, students are still managing to throw themselves off the imposing building. The coroner’s office are unable to give out specific details on suicides that have occurred at the university, but when suicides do happen, they’re not just limited to bedrooms or the tower block. Coroner Dr Chapman notes: “Quite a few people…go out of the [QMC] hospital and jump off the [top of the] car park. It doesn’t matter where you put a tower, if you put a high building somewhere people will go and jump off. The QMC fenced in…the car park, so they…jumped off the bridge just above casualty.”

So what does the university do to help students before they get to the top of the proverbial tower block? Pat Hunt, Director of the university’s Counselling Service, says the service is always available for those who need help. Students who contact the department are asked to come in for an initial appointment within seven days of calling, where their needs and risks are assessed.

Hunt explains: “[We work] hard to try and think of ways of making sure our provision is as responsible and sensitive as it can be, in order to encourage people who are suicidal to come and see us. [We] hope to prevent suicide and offer an appropriate response in the aftermath of suicide…If someone is suicidal then we will put them into our urgent category, they will be offered an ongoing appointment as soon as we’ve got one available…within a week, maybe two weeks. We’re especially concerned about young men in this regard. Women…are more likely to…tell someone when they’re experiencing difficulty than young men…[However,] the number of young men contacting us has gone up this year. It’s not at all easy to find ways [to get] men to feel it’s alright for them to contact us. [It can make them feel] like they’re compromising their masculinity.”

Dr Chapman agrees that provision for males is often less utilised or promoted than for women. “All the way through, when you look at it,” he notes, “males are ‘traumatic’. Lots more hang themselves, step in front of trains. Females tend to take tablets – you have a chance of being found or changing your mind whereas in a male, with traumatic [suicide attempts] you don’t get a second chance.”

“[The service is] well known, well used and…well respected,” Hunt concludes, “but we can never assume that everyone knows about it, or enough about it. I don’t think you can ever say that we’ve completely cracked it. We could do with more staff, and it would be good to cut down the waiting times even more – but I have to [admit] that the university have [matched our funding bids] in the past few years.”

If suicidal thoughts occur late at night, confidential, student-run listening service Nightline is there for students who feel depressed or suicidal. It provides students with a friendly ear and information on services ranging from taxi numbers to abuse helplines. Joint co-ordinators Katie and Annika explain: “Potential Nightliners receive extensive practical and theoretical training to prepare them for any sort of call that they may receive. In the development of our training programme several helplines and organisations were contacted for advice, for example the Samaritans. We regularly attend National Nightline conferences where there are talks and workshops run by external bodies such as the Samaritans, Rape Crisis and the Eating Disorders Association.

“We are also in contact with the Nightlines of other universities to find out how they run their training and what works and doesn’t for them. Our training programme is reviewed on a regular basis, to keep it up to date…We are hoping to expand our service from September to include an E-listening service, where students can email us instead of or as well as calling us. This is because we are aware that some people do not feel comfortable making initial contact verbally and may find that writing something down really helps them. This in no way affects our telephone service, which will continue to operate as it currently does, it is just a further way for students to contact us.”

“The Students’ Union campaigns on key issues every year,” adds SU Welfare Officer Laura Wilkes. “[We] try and educate students about where they can get help if they are having difficulties. We also want students to know that they do not have to wait until their problem becomes so bad that they feel suicidal…they should come and get help before these problems becomes worse.”

However much support there is out there for students, it seems that the university is still loath to speak out about the problem. They were unwilling to comment or release any information or statistics concerning the problem. Hunt believes that the university has responded well “at an individual level,” as her service has seen many staff and students in the wake of recent suicides, but agrees: “The university needs to be open about the things that have happened, and not hide information…It’s not being made as public as it might [have been]. It’s a very tricky area, it seems to me, [as] some of the details of what happened are of course very personal. I think it has to be borne in mind that it’s a very sensitive and tricky area and it’s quite hard to get it right.”
Tim Utton of the university’s Press Office does not think this is the case, and that the university deals with the situation satisfactorily. “In the event of the sudden death of a student, an established procedure is followed…Typically the Registrar’s office would inform the Student Union President and SU Welfare Officer. Senior security staff inform the Vice-Chancellor’s Office, the University Counselling Service, the Chaplaincy and other individuals within the university including the student’s head of school and hall warden. Neighbours in hall, friends of the deceased, and (where appropriate) hall wardens and security staff are offered counselling.
Wilkes mentions the Counselling Service and Nightline as the prominent services the university provides. She adds: “[We] work very closely with all Hall welfare reps to ensure that information and support is available, should anyone need it.” However, she believes the university “should [not] let students know if and when other students committ suicide – purely out of respect for the families of the victims…The university and the Students’ Union should continue to provide the services that are here, and ensure that students know where they can have access to them.”

University press officer Tim Utton says it would be wrong for the university to note the death of a student publicly. “The Police provide a report which is submitted to the Coroner. Proceedings of an inquest are, of course, open to the public. The Coroner records a verdict according to the evidence presented. Consideration and respect for bereaved family and friends are absolutely paramount during and after this process. Any student death is a tragedy, and it would not be appropriate to provide…specific information on each death.”

Perhaps a little more openness about the issue to the university as a whole might alert people to the dangers of suicide and encourage potential self-harmers take advantage of the opportunities provided by the university and other services, rather than killing themselves. What’s the main problem about suicide at Nottingham? That it is occurring at all, or that the university isn’t open and honest about the severity of the situation?

Suicides in Nottingham

2005 – 56 male, 10 female, 62 open verdicts.
2004 – 74 male, 21 female, 68 open verdicts
2003 – 54 male, 13 female, 55 open verdicts
2002 – 46 male, 6 female, 57 open verdicts

Miriam Zendle


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