13/12/2012 07:02 GMT | Updated 11/02/2013 05:12 GMT

If Universities Don't Respond To Student Suicide Figures, Student Campaigners Will

There is an ancient proverb about some blind monks that stumble into a very large elephant. Standing at different sides of the beast, each of the men describes what's in front of him: each of their descriptions are different. Unfortunately, failing to realise that they could have different and yet wholly compatible views, they fall into disagreement and are left divided.

A leading psychiatrist suggested to me earlier this month that this is what higher education is like when it comes to supporting students.

During the past four years, I have been involved with dozens of vibrant student-led events and campaigns that have made the subject of mental health more mainstream and accessible; but I have also been involved in some harrowing and somber discussions that have underlined the need for more to be done on a policy level. After the release of new student suicide figures, the past fortnight has mostly involved the latter.

When I uncovered the figures, I was researching for an article to mark the one-year anniversary of the Royal College of Psychiatrists' student mental health report. Although the report mentioned student suicide figures pre-2005, there didn't appear to be anything more recent. At a time when students have been facing unprecedented uncertainty, this was alarming. How can we make sure that students get the support they need if we aren't monitoring such crucial statistics?

I read up on the Freedom of Information Act, and reached out to the Office of National Statistics with an information request. They were quick and efficient in responding, and the data was published on their website. Even if - as the ONS officer told me - the numbers were too small to draw formal conclusions about trends, the figures were cause for concern. I'm still trying to work out why there was no one in the higher education or mental health sectors that was monitoring these figures. It's not as if it took me a great deal of time to access them. Perhaps the psychiatrist - with his parable - was right, and we're all just stumbling around blindly.

Mental health is a complex issue in any setting, never mind higher education. For one thing, what does 'mental health' even mean? The World Health Organisation describes it as "a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community." It's an upbeat definition that, despite being a bit wordy, everyone can relate to. But most of the time the term isn't used in that way - it's used to refer to mental illness. The title of the Department of Health's page on mental illness is not 'mental illness', but 'mental health'. The slogan for the anti-stigma campaign, Time To Change, is "let's end mental health discrimination", when the campaign is actually working to end discrimination against those with mental ill-health. It's no wonder the subject is difficult to discuss if we can't agree on the language to use.

On campuses, there's a further issue. For many students, going to university is their first time living away from home. And yet, despite (legally) being adults, they are still entering into the care of the institution. It's the duty of the institution to try and help them get to grips with university life, without impinging on their freedoms as an adult. That's not an easy job. Particularly during a period when institutions have been facing major upheaval.

But they do have help. In 2011, the Royal College of Psychiatrists published an update to their comprehensive report into student mental health (which I reviewed and extended here). The report provided a thorough overview of available statistics, of how support services work, and of what institutions should be doing. It emphasized the "pressing need" for more to be done, and discussed the current challenges facing students. With these new figures, we now know how pressing the need is. It is time for the sector to respond.

Meanwhile, as support services are being squeezed by budget cuts, compassionate and dedicated support staff are working tirelessly to help students get through a challenging period. Increasingly, staff are also getting help from the students themselves. And it's here, especially, that there is cause for optimism. More students than ever before are speaking out on the issue of mental health, and getting involved in campaigning. They are not just raising awareness of the subject, they are helping to bring together stakeholders and combine perspectives; they are working with support staff to try and overcome institutional short-sightedness.

When I setup the Mind Matters Society - the University of Leeds' student mental health group - our mission was to bring mental health out of the shadows on campus. We believed that there was some excellent support available to students, and that if we could create a bit more dialogue around mental health and signpost to services, then we might be able to save lives. That was four years ago, and - despite the news - I still believe it today. But some things have changed: we now know that institutions need to take action. And if policy-makers can't see this, then it will be down to the students themselves, to lead them.