We have been deeply saddened to learn that there have been 5 deaths within the Cambridge student community in recent months. We want to acknowledge the pain and grief felt by people across Cambridge, and to extend our sympathies to everyone who knew the students who have died.
It’s wrong to speculate on the circumstances surrounding each student’s death, but we should not shy away from the fact that there is a student mental health crisis at Cambridge. Let us be frank - one student death is too many, but the numbers we have seen in the past few months are especially troubling. It’s for this reason that we feel obliged to take a firm, and public, stance against the series of failures that we have witnessed in the University and across the colleges.
The University, in response to stipulations of its regulator the Office for Students, produced a draft Suicide Prevention Plan in the summer of 2021. This policy was far from perfect, but throughout the year we engaged in good faith to improve it. We were confident that the direction of travel was positive, even if progress was gradual. Senior University leadership staff took suicide awareness training. The University seemed to have recognised its responsibility to equip staff to enact an institutional commitment to suicide prevention because, as the original policy affirmed, it ‘is worthwhile even if it saves just one student’s life’.
Despite this, we were alarmed by the concerns that several colleges had about the preventative approach to suicide. Senior leaders in some colleges, particularly Trinity, pushed back against the idea that the colleges have or should have a responsibility to try to prevent suicide. Their interventions contorted the policy into a shamefully unambitious ‘Suicide-Safer Strategy’, which has been diluted beyond recognition. Crucially, colleges had the aim of preventing suicides removed from the plan, along with a range of active measures the University and colleges would have implemented to prevent suicide.
The new Suicide Safer Strategy is an institutional rejection of the idea that the University is able to prevent student deaths. The new version of the policy talks about ‘risk reduction’ instead of suicide prevention, disregarding guidance from Samaritans, the World Health Organisation, Student Minds, and the Office for Students itself. It represents the University and Colleges not simply recusing themselves of their role in the circumstances leading to a student suicide, but stating that they - some of the most powerful and wealthy institutions in the country - are simply powerless to help students in crisis. It is a shameful dereliction of duty.
A suicide prevention plan should protect students, but this new Strategy does not. It protects the colleges from liability in the event of a student death, by minimising their role in prevention and response. This is particularly disheartening given the huge influence that our colleges have on students’ lives during our time at Cambridge. Far more so than at many other Universities, the institution we belong to shapes so much of our day to day lives, and is relatively involved when it comes to student conduct, living arrangements, and welfare. Why does that involvement stop when it comes to intervention at times of crisis?
Despite early indications of an appetite for meaningful change, the University has now changed course in the face of a handful of dissenting colleges. It is has chosen to appease detractors rather than take a firm stance in favour of even the bare minimum when it comes to suicide prevention. The new Suicide Safer Strategy has been passed, with the assertion that a preventative approach is ‘worthwhile even if it saves just one student’s life’ specifically removed. The recommendation for all College leadership to take suicide awareness training has also been removed.
Our strength of feeling on this issue should not overshadow the fact that what we have hoped for throughout is an institution-wide response to this problem. We want all staff and students in all colleges and all faculties to be empowered to be part of a whole-Cambridge plan to prevent and respond to suicide. We know that staff in colleges experience first-hand the loss and grief felt by us all when a student dies, and we recognise that the work to reduce and end student suicide is not easy. But it is work that is required of us if we want to meet our obligations to each other.
We have gone back and forth about whether sharing our outlook on the Suicide Safer Strategy is the right thing to do. It is hard to know in the aftermath of tragedy whether it’s appropriate or insensitive to talk about the policy context, especially when the student community is still grieving these losses. It would be easy for a Students’ Union responding to student deaths to decide not to talk to its students about what is going on in the University. But in recent months we have learnt of student death after student death, all the while watching college leaders fight to remove provision after provision designed to prevent future suicides. Remaining silent has become intolerable.
University leaders must urgently review the Suicide Safer Strategy, with the intention of restrengthening and renewing Cambridge’s commitment to a preventive approach. This must include firm resistance to any college wishing to frustrate efforts to create a useful prevention plan. Aiming for a world in which every single suicide is prevented is ambitious. But it always, always worthwhile, even if it saves the life of just one student.
When life is difficult, Samaritans are here – day or night, 365 days a year. You can call them for free on 116 123, email them at email@example.com, or visit www.samaritans.org to find your nearest branch.
If you are experiencing mental health issues, there are sources of support that exist to help you. Call NHS 111 and choose option 2 to speak to a first response service for people experiencing a mental health crisis.
??Shout is a free and confidential text messaging support service for anyone who is struggling to cope and people who are anxious, stressed, depressed, suicidal or overwhelmed and need immediate support. Open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Text: 85258
Within the University and your College, sources of support include your College nurse and the University Counselling Service, who will give priority support to members of our community affected by the issues in this article.