Universities inspired to spot students with mental health concerns

Ben MurrayImage copyright Family photograph
Image caption Ben Murray was a student at Bristol University

James Murray describes his son Ben as a very kind, gentle giant of a man.

“He was very dynamic, and very intelligent. He had everything going for him,” he says.

“He was sensitive. He used to look at the things other people might overlook, like suffering in friends and people around him.”

The last time James saw his son was in May 2018 for lunch. Hours later, the 19-year-old was dead.

The first-year student at Bristol University had told his father he was worried he would be thrown off his course for lack of attendance. He did not admit he had already been sent a letter that said he was being dismissed.

Ben is one of 12 students at the university to die in three years.

No idea of son’s crisis

At an inquest into his death, the coroner called for universities to “destigmatise” mental health issues after concluding that Ben took his own life.

James said he had no idea about the extent of Ben’s struggles.

After Ben’s death, he asked the university for a detailed account of his son’s time at Bristol.

“What became very clear is that little pieces of the picture were held in different places, different departments and different systems.

“And when you put it together in one place, the picture of Ben’s crisis seemed to be so clear.”

James questioned why the university had not been in touch with his family to raise concerns.

The policy for universities was to only inform next-of-kin if there was a serious physical accident or death.

Since Ben’s death, his parents have called for earlier intervention for students struggling with their mental health.

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Media captionBen’s father James has worked with Bristol University to support students in need

James Murray has worked with Bristol University to develop a new system to deal with students who need support.

Last September, vice-chancellor Hugh Brady brought in an initiative that allows students to opt in to a scheme that would allow staff to contact a friend or relative if there were serious concerns about a student’s mental health.

Mr Brady said around 95% of students have signed up.

He said just over a dozen students had been a cause for concern. “We’ve probably considered it so far this year in maybe about 15 students. We have actively used it in about five.

“It’s an appropriate innovation, given the scale of the mental health challenges affecting our students, not just here, but across the sector.”

Spotting students in trouble

Figures from the Office for National Statistics show 95 recorded university student suicides for the 12 months to July 2017 in England and Wales. But around half of students who take their own lives are not known to mental health services.

Across the country, education institutions are trying to find new ways of spotting students in trouble at a much earlier stage.

The University of East London has also been working with James Murray.

It is one of a handful of universities looking at how student data, which is usually used to monitor retention rates, can be used to spot those with mental health problems.

The aim is to identify students who need but don’t ask for help by analysing their digital footprint. A trail is left when they attend lectures, take out books at the library or log in to the computer system.

Charles Prince has been leading the project: “The future plan is to bring together in a one-stop-shop system, the information that is kept on students through analytics and information that is kept in mental health and wellbeing, and bring it together to build that one student profile.

“So I can see based on the analytics, how mental health is playing a role into the student’s experience,” he said.

Cleaners on watch

Wolverhampton University has trained 450 staff including security guards, caretakers and cleaners, who often work in the evenings, to recognise early warning signs in students.

Nottingham Trent University has a dashboard for staff and students that generates an alert after 14 days of lack of engagement.

A new set of suicide-prevention guidelines has been issued to universities by Universities UK.

In March, the government introduced a new task force to look at how students moving from college or sixth form can be better supported.

James Murray has said his work with universities over the last year has really helped him deal with Ben’s death: “You have to remember the good times.

“But we should learn something from his life. We wanted to feel that Ben’s death wasn’t in vain, that the wider community would learn from it. And I think that’s happening as a result.”

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