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Have courage to ask the lifesaving question

22 November 2023

Simon Blake, chief executive at MHFA England

As a young gay man growing up in the 80s and 90s, homophobia was a staple part of daily life and it inevitably impacted my sense of self and confidence. That said, I was optimistic and hopeful about my future.

Sadly, recent statistics tell a different story for many. We are making great strides in talking about mental health but data from Papyrus shows that more than 200 young people die by suicide every year and on average more than five young people take their lives each day. And while the suicide rate in under 20s is low compared with older age groups, figures from the Office for National Statistics show rates across England, in all age groups under 25, have been increasing over the last decade.

The latest figures show that increase in rates is now levelling off, but we still have a long way to go to tackle the silence and stigma which play an enormous part in preventing people from getting help.

Suicide is preventable through education and intervention, and providing the right support and environment in further education is an integral part of suicide prevention. Young people spend a large part of their waking hours at college, and ensuring they benefit from a safe, calm and supportive learning environment with early, targeted support for those who need it must be part of a whole college approach to promoting health and wellbeing.

College staff are well placed to recognise the signs that a student might be at risk of suicide and respond effectively, yet research from Papyrus found that teachers and staff are unsure of what to do or say. Many are frightened that they may make things worse by talking to their pupils about suicide, but with the right training, we can all be brave enough to ask the question which could save a life. 

Suicide First Aid training through MHFA England provides staff with a greater understanding of suicide, the knowledge to spot the signs and confidence and skills to have vital conversations, including the important question: “Are you having suicidal thoughts, and do you have a plan to end your life?”.

Once trained, mental health first aiders have access to a support app which includes a 24/7 text support service through Shout. This provides advice and reassurance after a difficult mental health conversation and supports wellbeing.

Identifying students at risk of suicide is complex. Most of the time there isn’t one event or factor that leads someone to take their own life. It is usually a combination of different factors interacting with each other. Recognising and understanding the risk factors that may be prevalent amongst young people can help you create targeted suicide prevention strategies.

In creating these safe learning environments, we should remember that statistically some people experience poorer mental health outcomes than the rest of the population. One study of deaths by suicide in those under 20, by Cambridge University, found that 15% had a mental illness and 30% had a physical health condition and 25% had been bereaved, including by suicide. A further six per cent reported being LGBTQ+ and eight per cent had experience of the care system. To tackle the rising numbers of suicide, then, we must also understand and work to end inequalities.

Colleges can take action to help prevent crises, support survivors, and ensure at risk students and employees aren’t put at further risk. Creating a support focused action and communication plan following suicide is key. Leaders should consider what resources are available such as access to trained health workers and mental health support services. Mental health first aiders may well see an increase in students and staff contacting them, so it is vital to engage with them to ensure they are supported.  

If you would like to find out more about how MHFA England can support you to embed suicide prevention into your college or organisation, please visit our website.

As part of our Mental Health and Wellbeing project with The Education and Training Foundation, we have provided resources that aim to provide a foundation for FE managers and leaders to enhance organisational systems and support structures to help staff develop the skills required to cope with the demands of the job. To find out more and access the resources, please click here.