Female student suicides rose in 2016 for the fifth consecutive year, to new record levels. The news comes at a time when concerns have been raised about the mental health of adolescent girls and young women.
Although the female suicide rate in the general population increased in recent years, it remains approximately one third of the male rate. In 20-24 year olds, which represented the highest rate of suicide for women under 40, the ratio was slightly higher than one third at 37% compared to male. Amongst students specifically, a large proportion of whom fall within the 20-24 age category, female suicides in England & Wales were 54% that of male suicides, breaking from the broader population trend and suggesting that the student demographic may have unique features.
If we accept the conclusions of several studies and expert views examining student mental health, we might be quick to arrive at a culprit: the rise in tuition fees. While a study in 2015 claimed that the recent rise in tuition fees was not leading to worsening mental health amongst students, it only surveyed 390 students, and didn’t take suicide rates into consideration.
If we are going to suggest that the rise in tuition fees may be causing the suicide rate to increase, we have to consider why this seems to be affecting female students more than male. Although male student suicides have been at or near record levels during the past three years, the rate has been stable.
If we look at the relative suicide risk of being a student compared to the general population, female students have a suicide rate that is approximately equal to the broader rate amongst 20-24 year olds (based on HESA data; at 5 per 100,000), and higher than the adjacent age groups. When we factor in that a sizeable percentage of students fall outside of the 20-24 age group, this would put female students at greater risk of suicide than non-students for 2016. By contrast, male students had a lower rate of suicide than 20-24 year olds (at 11.8 per 100,000 compared to 14.1), suggesting that higher education may have provided a moderately protective effect against suicide in men (which one would expect in view of the inverse association between mental illness and socioeconomic status), but not for women.
As always, we have to be cautious in making conclusions based on limited data. However the rise in numbers of students attending counselling services may indicate both that mental health issues have risen, and also that anti-stigma campaigns may have had some effect. Many of these campaigns aim to challenge the ‘macho culture’ amongst young men, which may have had some effect in encouraging male students to seek help, preventing the suicide rate amongst men from moving higher.
It’s also possible that financial worries may affect female students more than male. A 2016 survey found that female students have lower expectations for graduate pay than male students, and a survey by NUS concluded that female students’ mental health may be more affected by financial worries than males’.