Cambridge University opens inquiry into student deaths feared to be suicides

LONDON – Britain’s prestigious University of Cambridge has opened an investigation after several student deaths were reported in recent months as the student union warns of a growing mental health crisis.

The leafy university, about 60 miles northeast of London, reported five student deaths between March and June this year. The university says one has been “confirmed as suicide”, while the other are four suspected suicides awaiting investigation by the coroner.

University Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope said in a statement on Tuesday that he was “deeply saddened” by the deaths. “In this troubled time, our community’s thoughts remain with the families and friends of the students who have died.”

He said the safety of students was “of fundamental importance” and that the university was “reviewing these tragic events” and putting plans in place to support mental health and well-being.

Founded in 1209, Cambridge has more than 20,000 students and is a global academic institution. It boasts more than 121 Nobel Prize winners and 47 heads of state among its alumni and affiliates.

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In a separate statement a day earlier, Cambridge said he had set up a “rapid-fire incident response group” – a separate investigation into the coroner’s investigation. – in collaboration with public health officials and local suicide prevention groups, to review the deaths.

For the first four deaths, the group found that “no common cause or clear links were apparent,” the university said. It still reviews the fifth death.

“We are shocked and deeply saddened by the tragic deaths,” Graham Virgo, senior vice-chancellor, said in a statement on Monday. “All of these students were valued members of our community,” he added, noting that the school “was in touch with the parents of those students who died to support them during this extremely difficult time.”

However, the university’s own student union, an elected body representing students, issued a statement in response to the deaths that blamed some of the university’s policies.

“It’s wrong to speculate about the circumstances surrounding each student’s death, but we should not shy away from the fact that there is a mental health crisis for students at Cambridge,” it said.

It called the number of deaths “disturbing” and said it felt compelled to take a public stand “against the series of failures we have seen in the University and across the colleges.”

The deaths occurred at various colleges within the university, consisting of 31 constituent colleges.

The Student Union has accused a university-wide suicide prevention strategy of being “shamefully unambitious” and “unrecognizably diluted”, calling it a “failure of duty”. It called on school leaders to “urgently review” suicide safety strategies and commit them to a preventative approach.

The university did not comment on the explicit allegations, but pointed to The Washington Post’s statement to Toope about the work being done to support students’ well-being.

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It said it is investing about $ 6 million a year in an action plan to support mental health, including a new student support department, student wellness advisers, shortening mental health assistance waiting times and suicidal awareness training for front-line staff.

“Nothing is more important than the safety of our students,” it said in Monday’s statement. “Unfortunately, we are seeing increasing numbers of young people using counseling services and reporting problems with their mental health across universities here in the UK, and internationally.”

Despite concerns about recent deaths, public health experts have stressed that suicide rates for university students in both the UK and the US have been declining over the past few years. The most recent data from Britain’s Office of National Statistics found that suicide rates for higher education students in the academic year ended 2020 were three deaths per 100,000 students – the “lowest rate observed over the past four years.”

Also in the US, suicide rates are also generally declining for almost all demographic groups, according to the American Association of Suicidology, although suicide is still the second leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds.

However, the coronavirus pandemic and cost of living crisis are recent factors that, according to public health experts, have led to an increase in mental health issues among students.

Steve West, president of Universities UK, a membership body representing 140 universities across the country, said there had been an increase in mental health issues reported across student populations in the UK.

“Universities need to be safe and mentally healthy places to live, work and study,” he told The Post in an email, “every life lost by suicide is a tragedy.”

“While there is no evidence that the overall number of student deaths is increasing by suicide, risk factors such as self-harm, depression, guilt, lack of involvement and loneliness mean that universities need to be vigilant to spot the signs and respond quickly.”

A spokesman for the National Union of Students, a confederation of nearly 600 student unions representing 7 million students, told The Post they were “shocked and saddened to hear of cases of student suicide”, showing “universities are not separate of the wider society “.”

“Our research has shown that students are overwhelmingly burdened by anxiety, often rooted in poverty and academic pressure – and now unfortunately exacerbated by the cost of living crisis,” the NUS said.

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Pressure on students worldwide has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic as they have endured shifting academic schedules, online learning, mask protocols and restrictions on socialization.

Data from a 2021 Healthy Minds Network study showed that 34 percent of U.S. college respondents had anxiety disorder and 41 percent had depression – rates that have risen over the past year. More generally, nearly 73 percent in the fall 2021 American College Health Association National College Health Assessment survey reported moderate or severe psychological distress.

“There is no doubt that young people are under considerable pressure at the moment,” said Ged Flynn, chief executive of Papyrus, a British charity working to prevent young suicides.

There has been some “good news,” he added, with national data trends showing that overall suicide rates have remained the same or dropped over the past year. However, he added, this was not the case for 11- to 19-year-olds, an age group that offers the “biggest concern”.

Flynn said academic institutions need to do more to reach this age cohort and “make it clear that they are not on their own.” He added, “we firmly believe that many suicides can be prevented and we want there to be positive outcomes.”

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or visit You can also SMS a Crisis Counselor by sending the Crisis Text Line to 741741

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