Universities UK (UUK), in partnership with the charity PAPYRUS, has published guidance for universities on the topic of suicide prevention. The clear message of this guidance is that universities can help save lives when they adopt a proactive approach to suicide prevention, which includes involving families, carers, and trusted contacts. Several bereaved parents have called for universities to share more information, saying this would have allowed them to intervene earlier and perhaps even save their children’s lives. UUK’s guidance explains how universities should make use of the “triangle of care”: the idea that students, professionals and loved ones should work together when supporting students with their mental wellbeing.
"It can be a relatively small thing that can help to prevent suicide. A word. A smile. A conversation. These small connections might be with a care practitioner or even a stranger, but so often it is family or trusted contacts who reach out in time and with love. This important document brings home that truth."
Foreword by Ged Flynn, CEO, PAPYRUS
UUK’s guidance follows advice on suicide prevention published by the Office for Students (discussed by our colleague Alice Cave in this article).
Universities will also have paid close attention to a recent landmark case in which the County Court held that discrimination by the University of Bristol caused the suicide of a disabled student, Natasha Abrahart (see our previous article). The County Court has refused to give the University permission to appeal, and the University is now seeking permission from the High Court.
Only this week, the coroner raised concerns about the University of Exeter’s role in the suicide of a student, Harry Armstrong Evans. As reported in this ITV article, the coroner referred to the “safeguarding obligation” of universities and the need to provide a “safety net” for their students. The coroner criticised the University’s failure proactively to respond to concerns raised by Harry and his parents, specifically the lack of engagement with his family.
UUK’s guidance does not constitute regulatory guidance and does not create additional legal duties on universities towards their students (outlined in our previous article). Instead, it aims to provide a framework for universities to better support their students facing mental health emergencies. In the remainder of this article, we highlight some of its key messages.
1. Ask students about their trusted contacts
UUK’s guidance says that it is important that universities hold up-to-date details for a “trusted contact” who can be contacted when there are concerns for that student’s wellbeing. This does not need to be their next of kin: some students might feel more comfortable appointing a friend, partner or trusted other, so the language “next of kin” should be avoided.
UUK recommends making the question a mandatory requirement for students during their enrolment and that the information is refreshed at the start of each academic year. Students should be told how that information will be used and reminded to ask for the consent of the person they choose.
2. Start conversations early
UUK’s guidance recommends that when students first seek support from university staff, they should be given an opportunity to update their trusted contacts and express their wishes about sharing information. Students may feel comfortable with some information being shared with trusted contacts while withholding other information, for example around the student’s sexual orientation, gender identity or problems with drugs and alcohol. Records of conversations about information-sharing should be kept to ensure that students’ choices are considered in an emergency.
UUK encourages transparent discussions about sharing information without consent, which will help students understand what to expect and give them the opportunity to reflect on what they would like to happen in an emergency to ensure their wishes are given proper weight.
UUK’s guidance also suggests asking students about their relationships with health professionals, as information-sharing with health professionals could assist a coordinated effort to spot signs of risk.
3. Understand when to share information in an emergency
UUK’s guidance says that if staff are concerned about a student, they should make every reasonable effort to secure consent before involving their contacts. However, it is clear that in some circumstances universities can and should share information without consent. Concerning data privacy issues, the Information Commissioner’s Office has re-published its advice affirming that universities are permitted to share personal data in an emergency or to protect a life, and will not suffer consequences from data protection law for doing so.
UUK’s guidance says universities should develop a policy which outlines who, how and when the trusted contact will be contacted. This should allow students, staff and contacts to be clear about the university’s approach. Important factors to include in the policy are:
- When staff may share information without consent,
- Who has the authority to make that decision,
- What steps the university will take to reach a student’s contact in an emergency, and
- How decisions will be recorded and reviewed.
So, what should universities do in response to this guidance?
The top three action points we draw from this new guidance are as follows:
Require students to provide the name of a trusted contact at the enrolment stage and refresh this information regularly.
Put clear policies in place that specify when and how the university will involve trusted contacts when there are serious concerns about a student’s safety or mental health. This should include information about the circumstances in which information may be shared without the student’s consent.
Ensure that staff members who work with students receive appropriate training. The guidance provides a useful framework for the level of training required, depending on the role the member of staff plays in the university.
With many thanks to Emily Waterhouse, Trainee Solicitor, for her contribution to this article.
If you require further information about anything covered in this briefing, please contact Alice Kendle or your usual contact at the firm on +44 (0)20 3375 7000.
This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.
© Farrer & Co LLP, November 2022