Education: Tragedy meets myth at Oxford: Headlines about drugs and suicide do not give a true picture, says Owen Slot

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The Independent Online
STUDENTS at Oxford University are not an endangered species, in spite of the headlines given to two recent suicides and the death of Henry Skelton, a 21-year-old fine arts student who fell 25 feet after taking LSD.

A report on suicides at the university recorded 21 such deaths between 1976 and 1990, a figure that does not suggest an abnormally high rate among Oxford students. Nor does it seem that the rate is on the increase.

A report on drug abuse at Oxford has also been compiled; it was completed the day before Mr Skelton died. While it acknowledges that the university does have a drugs problem, it hopes that its findings will 'allay some anxieties and dispel some of the grossly exaggerated myths concerning the extent of drug use among Oxford students.'

Mr Skelton studied at New College. Dr Elizabeth Frazer, the dean, says: 'There's a prurient interest in what goes on in Oxford, due to its place in our culture. When anything happens it's likely to be reported, whereas if it happened at any other university, with the exception of Cambridge, it would be very unlikely to be reported, other than in the local press.'

Nigel Huddleston, the university welfare officer who conducted the drugs survey, says his motivation came largely from being tired of fielding calls about levels of student drug abuse and not having enough information to provide answers.

Mr Huddleston found that 41 per cent of the student population had taken drugs, and most of those had only used marijuana, arguably the least harmful of controlled drugs. Of the 'harder' drug users, 5 per cent had taken ecstasy ('E'), 7 per cent LSD and 2 per cent cocaine. When Mr Huddleston announced those figures to welfare officers at other universities, he found that some were surprised they were so low. Stuart Feathers, welfare officer at Liverpool University, says: 'The marijuana figure is about right, though the others sound low.'

Ellie Merton, welfare officer at London University, says: 'The Oxford figures compare roughly with what I'd expect here.' She adds, however: 'I would expect more use of 'E' in London, where it is more accessible and there is more night-life.'

The general view among university welfare officers is that tragedies happen anywhere: universities are places where young people stand on their own for the first time, with inevitable risks. Indeed, Oxford's survey suggests that it is not an environment where the temptations or pressures to use drugs are particularly strong: of those who had used drugs, only 12 per cent had their first drug experience when at the university.

Today's generation of undergraduates does not appear to be any worse than its immediate predecessors: the proportion of marijuana users has risen only a little in the past two years.

It is harder to pinpoint the comparative depths of Oxford's suicide problem. The incidence of suicide is considerably lower than that estimated in reports conducted in Oxford and Cambridge in the Forties, Fifties and Sixties, and no greater than in a 1978 study. The number of failed suicide attempts in the recorded period (254 attempts by 216 students) was considerably lower than among other people of the same age living in Oxford.

When open verdicts are included in the statistics, the university's suicide rate falls into line with national rates for the same age-group.

No other university has relevant statistics, so it is impossible to see how Oxford compares. Random fluctuations from year to year can lead to misleading variations in rates.

John Pulgood, senior counsellor at Cambridge University, notes that the number of students seeking general counselling advice has doubled in the past academic year.

Suicide is often stress-related, and there are some who suspect that Oxford students may experience unusually high stress levels, having to deal with intensive eight-week terms without the benefit of an induction week (the first piece of work is generally expected within a week).

But the most commonly offered explanation is that students' self- esteem may take a considerable knock when they arrive at Oxford, to discover that, having been top of the form, they are now academically ordinary among their new peers.

After three suicides occurred in close succession at Imperial College, London, the college established a nightline service in 1979, and the rate subsequently dropped. Oxford University has already approved a request for additional funding for its own counselling service. It is hoped that counselling will help - but nobody expects it to eliminate student tragedies altogether.

(Photograph omitted)