Why do our students fear failure more than death?

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Student suicides are on the rise, it seems. But despite high-profile recent cases it is unfair to place all blame on the prestige universities. Instead we should examine the factors in society that are imposing pressure on young people to succeed.

By Ann Heyno

Now that the publicity surrounding the suicide of the Oxford University student Sarah Nabuk has died down, it is time to take stock of student suicide in general.

The truth is that the suicide rate, and the number of students with suicidal thoughts, are rising within all our universities. This is not, however, something that is widely known or talked about, and it is certainly not something that is adequately understood.

Rather than focusing on what is wrong with Oxford as a university, it may be more useful to think about why some young people, including those who apparently have everything to live for, are increasingly having these suicidal thoughts and in some cases are also acting them out.

Oxford gets the publicity when a student kills him or herself, but I am aware, as a trainer of student counsellors and as someone who runs a university counselling service, that the problem is far more widespread than it was a few years ago; it is certainly more widespread than is generally known.

The reason the subject is so little discussed may be that universities fear the sort of publicity that Oxford has had when a student there has committed suicide. Other universities, of less interest to the media, have been allowed to have their tragedies in private.

If we continue to allow Oxford to be the focus of our current concern about student suicide, and the rigours of that university to be seen as the cause of the phenomenon, we are in danger of ignoring one of the more serious threats to our young people.

At one level, whatever is going on at Oxford is beside the point; at another level it is highly relevant.

Oxford epitomises academic excellence, and symbolises the pressure that young people are under. But the issue is far broader than an academic problem at one highly prestigious British university.

There is anecdotal evidence that students presenting themselves for counselling at many British universities are increasingly doing so expressing suicidal thoughts. Yet there is no hard evidence to support this, probably for the reasons I have suggested.

In 1995/96 the University of Westminster Counselling and Advisory Service saw 197 students who had contemplated suicide. That is not an atypical figure.

So why are some students so seriously pessimistic about the future? Unfortunately, we don't know all the reasons, and we are unlikely to find out unless we are able to think about it seriously.

What we do know is that the act of suicide is a highly aggressive one, leaving behind a great deal of anger and long-lasting distress. In my experience, many students who have suicidal thoughts also feel pretty angry and let down about something or someone, and the contemplated suicide is an illusory way of achieving revenge for this.

But revenge is by no means the only thought in the mind of a suicidal student. There is also a great deal of despair, and a loss of hope which, in my experience, is often associated with a disbelief by the individual that he or she will ever be able to achieve adulthood.

There are always many deep psychological and particular reasons for this but there may also be some social reasons, which transcend those of the individual.

For the past two decades we have been living in a culture which increasingly equates material wealth with personal worth. With a rise in graduate employment there has been a growth in undergraduate competitiveness, and a greater premium on getting a top-class degree.

A genuine interest in and love of learning have sometimes been replaced by a wish to get the best degree at any price. Some of our brightest students are under-achieving because they fear that they will never be able to attain psychological and material independence through work, and others are sacrificing their social and sexual growth by studying to the exclusion of every other aspect of their development.

The other side of growing up which many students fear is that they may never be able to achieve a permanent sexual relationship. With so many of their parents living in reconstituted or overtly unhappy families, there is a pervading belief that good relationships don't last.

It would be pointless to blame unemployment or family breakdown for the increase in student suicide and suicidal thoughts. It would also be inaccurate. The situation is far more complicated than that. There are many other serious factors involved: psychiatric illness, long-standing emotional problems, student poverty, physical and sexual abuse, financial hardship, alcohol- and drug-related problems, eating disorders, and deep-seated difficulties relating to learning and low self-esteem. Is it worth beginning to frame some thoughts around why student suicide is now increasing, and why, according to the Samaritans, the suicide rate among young people in general is higher than it was 10 years ago?

It is time our universities were allowed to accept that it is not their fault when some students have suicidal thoughts, or if, on occasion, these thoughts are tragically acted out. If the universities were able to do this without the fear of media scrutiny and blame, they might also be able to allow some of their intellectual and material resources to be put into researching the causes of student suicide, and conducting research into ways of preventing it.

Student counsellors know a great deal about student depression and suicidal thoughts but, even within the profession, there is a sense of shame and guilt that we are not always able to prevent a student committing suicide. However, what we can and must do is to take every expression of suicidal thought very seriously indeed, using every support from our medical and psychiatric colleagues.

Twenty years ago student unions were far more militant bodies than they are today. They spoke the truth, as they saw it. They were also excellent mouthpieces for adolescent anger and rebellion.

Today there is no safe, external outlet for this natural aggression. Students as a body are far more compliant than they used to be. Alongside this there is more overt individual anger and aggression. I wonder whether some of this gets directed inwards in the form of suicidal thoughts.

The writer is head of the counselling and advisory service at the University of Westminster and senior tutor, master in psychodynamic counselling (student specialism) at Birkbeck College, University of London.