Content warning: this article discusses suicide.

This discussion resurfaces every time there is a student suicide in the UK, especially when in the aftermath, parents discover that the university in question had known about their child’s mental health struggles for some time.

In some more extreme cases, parents have found out that their child had attempted suicide previously, and that the university was aware and didn’t alert them.

In 2018, Ceara Thacker died by suicide whilst studying at the University of Liverpool. After Thacker died, her father, Ian spoke at an inquest on the fact that she had been taken into hospital after an overdose three months before.

Ian Thacker said at the time, “For as long as I live, I will never understand why no-one at the university picked up the phone to us”.

Opt-ins, confidentiality, and data protection.

In 2018, Ben Murray who was studying English at Bristol University, died by suicide after a long struggle with his mental health, struggles that were known by up to 30 different members of staff, his father said.

After his son’s death, James Murray called for a relaxation of data protection rules, rules that directly deter universities from getting in touch with parents if they have concerns over a student’s mental health.

As a result of this, Bristol University met with Mr Murray and begun talks to implement an opt-in preventative service.

At the point of registration/enrolment students would be asked, every year, whether they give consent to the university to use emergency contact details. This also gives students the option between naming a parent or a “trusted person”.

The parents behind the push, including James Murray and Lee Fryatt, to implement the system understand, there are many situations in which students may not wish for a parent or guardian to be contacted.

These include, previous struggles with parents around their sexuality or gender. Many young people use university and leaving for a new city as an opportunity to ‘escape’ their home circumstances.

A trusted person could be a close friend, another family member that isn’t a parent, or even a close colleague.

At the time, of Ben Murray’s death, then education secretary Damian Hinds backed this opt-in system vehemently, writing to university leaders informing them that they needed to improve upon their policies on reaching out to student emergency contacts in the event of mental health struggles.

As of October 2018, Bristol University has implemented this opt-in service. Upon implementation, 94% of the student population signed up, an overwhelming majority.

In 2018, HuffPost UK found that nationwide, university attitudes to data protection was varied, with “Confusion over what constitutes an emergency requiring the disclosure of information, with some institutions saying such a situation must be “life or death”, while others say there must be simply a “threat” to wellbeing.”

However, the student point of view seems to be in direct conflict with this. In 2019, the yearly Student Academic Experience Survey found that out of more than 14,000 full-time undergraduate students, 66% supported the idea that universities could notify a parent or guardian under “extreme circumstances”. A further 15% also supported their university contacting a parent or guardian under “any circumstances”.

What is being done now, in response to this?

The picture of which universities have taken up this opt-in system, which was so successful at Bristol University, seems to be very unclear, with no guidance nationwide on whether it should be a requirement.

The university watchdog in England and Office for Students has said that each institution is solely responsible for “developing their own mental health policies”.

The question of whether this opt-in system should be made a requirement is gaining new wind especially as stories emerge of students who have seriously struggled at university throughout the pandemic.

Some of these stories, unfortunately have very upsetting outcomes.

Finn Kitson arrived at the University of Manchester for his first year of undergraduate study and less than 10 days later was told to isolate after someone in his halls of residence flat tested positive for coronavirus.

Finn had started his time at university positively, having enrolled with three friends who he’d known since he was 16. However, as the weeks of isolation continued and he couldn’t see his friends, he became withdrawn.

Three weeks after Finn Kitson started his course at the University of Manchester, he was found dead in his accommodation room, after his friends and family had growing concern due to not hearing from him for a few days.

In response to this tragic loss, friends and family felt more needs to be done by universities to prevent mental health struggles from getting to this point.

Finn’s friend, Evie said “It just shouldn’t have happened. It could have been prevented.”

It seems now more than ever, universities nationwide need to take serious stock over what they have in place to support students who are in the throws of mental health struggles, but also what can be done to prevent a situation escalating to the point of suicide. Whether this be more clear guidelines in when to flag a student’s mental health struggles to an emergency contact, or an opt-in system as seen in Bristol.

Within the first year of the opt-in scheme, the University of Bristol saw 36 separate cases in which a parent or trusted person was contacted.

This response - to what seems like a simple solution to data protection and confidentiality issues – raises the question of why more universities are not following in Bristol’s footsteps.

Imperial College London announced this year that they are adopting this opt-in system but there has been little or no updates from any other universities in the nearly three years since its initial introduction in Bristol.

This question is certain to become all the more pertinent as students emerge from lockdown and self-isolation with all the mental health strains that the pandemic has brought on.


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