Exams are sometimes the final straw that lead to someone under 25 taking their own life, according to a major inquiry. While experts pointed out that the causes of suicide are always complex, they said academic problems could play a significant role.
In England and Wales on average, 96 people aged under 25 take their own lives every year in April and May, while the next highest number – 88 – do so in September, when new students start at university.
Analysis of evidence heard at inquests shows that 63 (43%) of the 145 suicides among those aged under 20 in 2014-15 were experiencing academic pressures of different sorts before their death. Almost one in three – 46 (32%) – had exams at the time, or coming up soon, or were waiting for exam results.
A higher proportion of those aged 20-24 were facing “academic pressures overall” before their death (47%). However, that figure represents seven of the only 15 suicides in that age group among young people who were in education at the time.
Stephen Habgood, the chairman of Papyrus, a charity that tries to prevent under-35s taking their own lives, said youth suicide was a devastating social phenomena.
“We are particularly concerned about the pressures on young students. Transition from a settled home life to university, where young people feel a pressure to succeed, face changes in their circle of friends and feel the impact of financial difficulties, can put extreme pressure on a young person,” Habgood said.
He called on universities to reinstate counselling services for distressed students, which have been cut.
“We know that stress at school has a big impact on mental health, and this research suggests that it can be a significant factor when young people feel suicidal. Although the causes of suicide are multiple and complex, worries around exams can add to the pressure on those who are already struggling to cope,” said Sarah Brennan, the chief executive of Young Minds.
“Ministers should rebalance the education system to ensure that students’ wellbeing is given as much priority as their academic performance,” she added.
A decade-long fall in the number of youth suicides has reversed in recent years to the extent that more young people die that way than from any other cause, warned the authors of a University of Manchester report into suicide by children and young people. In all 922 under-25s took their own lives in England and Wales during 2014 and 2015. Suicide now accounts for 14% of all deaths in 10 to 19-year-olds and 21% of 20 to 34-year-olds.
However, the UK still has a relatively low rate of suicide by children and young people compared with other countries. Inside the UK, Scotland and Northern Ireland have more such deaths per capita than England or Wales.
Suicide rates fell from between five and six per 100,000 in the early 2000s to a low of 3.1 per 100,000 in 2010. But they rose again to 5.5 per 100,000 in 2015, Office of National Statistics data shows.
Around 125 youth suicides a year occur soon after the person involved has experienced a bereavement. One in four (25%) of under-20s and 28% of 20 to 24-year-olds had lost a relative, partner, friend or acquaintance around a year or more beforehand. In 11% of suicides among under-20s, the person who those involved had lost had also taken their own life.
“Suicide is the leading cause of death in young people in England and Wales. Although there is no single cause, bereavement was an important theme in many of the deaths we examined”, said Prof Louis Appleby, the inquiry’s director.
Of the 922 deaths Appleby and his team looked into, 708 (77%) had been judged at a coroner’s inquest to have been suicide, while the other 214 (23%) had ended with an undetermined or open conclusion.
Young people who have been bereaved need greater support to reduce the risk of them killing themselves, say the authors, who also want colleges and universities to give students’ psychological health a higher priority. Agencies who are meant to help young people are “poor” at recognising the risk of suicide among them, and need to improve, they add.
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