Guest blog – Anna Edwards (MA student, Sheffield)

content note: TW suicide

‘When Fear of Failure is Fatal’- Student Suicide and Academic Pressure in British Newspapers 1862-2000 – a summary

By Anna Edwards, BA hons 

As a student, academic pressure is everywhere. I experience it with every upcoming deadline, I watch how it affects my friends, and I’m warned about it by my parents. Indeed, with alarming reports from ‘QS top universities’ that a student in the UK kills themselves every four days, it’s clear that academic pressure in UK universities has become an institutional problem. So, when it came to writing my dissertation, I knew exactly what contemporary issues I wanted to historicize.

When I began my research, I was surprised to discover that, despite the severity of these issues, student suicide and academic pressure have attracted very little historical attention. The literature on suicide is well developed and specific, with historians like Kusher and Anderson undertaking complex studies of the suicide of specific groups and in specific periods, but so far, students have not been included. The literature on higher education is also well developed, but again, student mental health has been neglected, with the focus instead on institutional histories that only consider student welfare in relation to academic performance or the dropout rate.

Indeed, there is only one British study in existence with the primary aim of historicising student mental health, and that is Crook’s ‘Historicising the “Crisis” in Undergraduate Mental Health’, which explores how and why student mental health became an issue of concern in British universities between 1944 and 1968 and draws primarily on materials written by medical professionals working in university health services. Crook also briefly touches on student suicide, analysing the concerns around and explanations for student suicide in academic journals.

My dissertation thus sought to build on Crook’s work and move towards filling this gap in the historiography, examining how the public discourse surrounding student suicide and academic pressure has changed throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Due to the limited word count of my dissertation, I chose to focus on a sample of 70 newspaper articles from between 1862 and 2000. Although I recognise that focusing on a small sample from one strand of public discourse limited the scope of my conclusions, newspaper articles proved extremely fruitful as the primary medium in which general discussion of student suicide and academic pressure took place.

The primary objectives of my dissertation were to analyse how the level of concern about student suicide in British newspapers changed between 1862 and 2000 and to explore when the type of concern switched from concern about individual student suicides to concern about student suicide as a recurrent problem rooted in the institutional failure of universities.  I argue that roughly between 1862 and 1950, student suicides reports were mainly concerned with locally reporting the suicide of individual students. These reports had a large focus on gruesomely describing the method and discovery of suicide instead of a focus on providing or enquiring about explanations for the suicides, expressing regret about the suicides, or expressing sympathy towards the victims and their families, suggesting that the level of concern about student suicides was low.

However, I then argued that there was a dramatic increase in the level of concern about student suicide with the scandal surrounding new data about high suicide rates in Oxford and Cambridge between the 1950s and 1970s, as evidenced by the increase in the number of reports, increase in the number of national reports and the appearance of high-status authors. The type of concern also switches from individual students to the student body, with an increased focus on suicide rates and an increase in criticism of universities demonstrating this. Thus, my dissertation argued that the understanding of student suicide we have today, as a persistent and problematic phenomenon reflecting institutional failure, was born between the 1950s and the 1970s.

My dissertation then argued that between 1970 and 1990, we see further development of the trends of the 1950 to 1970 period; levels of concern about student suicide continued to rise and appear to peak in the 1990s, as suggested by the climax in reporting levels and the complete shift to national reporting in my sample.

As the second facet of my argument, my dissertation explored how the discussion about academic pressure changed in British newspapers between 1862 and 2000. Why? Well, debates about student suicide became a proxy discussion for debates about academic pressure; after all, academic pressure is what makes a suicide a student suicide as to term a suicide a student suicide implies that one has killed themselves because of the circumstances they faced during their studies. Thus, academic pressure and student suicide are intrinsically linked, and my dissertation argued that academic pressure became the predominant explanation for student suicide in British newspapers throughout the 1862 to 2000 period.

Furthermore, my dissertation argued that before the 1950s, student suicide reports focused on individual students killing themselves due to students overworking themselves or possessing excess levels of fear they would fail, discussing academic pressure as an individual reaction to studies and exams. However, between 1950 and 1970, public discourse about academic pressure began to broaden, with newspapers starting to discuss the pressure universities and examinations were putting on students, causing them to kill themselves, alongside providing insufficient access to support services. In doing so, the newspapers began to frame academic pressure as an institutional problem and phenomenon and transferred the blame for student suicides away from the individual students and towards the universities.

Finally, my dissertation argued that, from the 1970s, the discussion of academic pressure became more explicit, extensive, and complex, which suggests a growing recognition, exploration, and condemnation in British newspapers of the role the high-pressure university environment was playing in student suicides. However, unfortunately, this was not universal, with reports that undermine discussion of institutional academic pressure focusing on how the students cause their own issues continuing, undermining any narrative of a completely progressive change in student suicide reporting.

It was my hope, more than anything, that this dissertation would start a conversation about the crucial issues of student suicide and academic pressure that both Universities UK and the Samaritans advise journalists to discuss less.  In the wake of these new tough reporting regulations that are designed to reduce the likelihood of copycat suicides but invertedly function to mute the struggles of students, it is more important than ever that historians establish that today’s reports of student suicide are part of a long history. Indeed, in understanding how and when student suicide and academic pressure became recognised as issues and the debates surrounding this, we can begin to understand why and for how long the issues of student suicide and academic pressure have been overlooked, providing crucial information for activists seeking to tackle these problems.

 It provides me great comfort Crook is continuing to explore the history of student mental health, and I am filled with respect and admiration for her decision to include students in this process. It is amazing to see the validation and comfort that have been brought about by the historicization of student mental health, evident in the student reflections posted here on this website. It is my hope her research also inspires student activism and acts as ammunition in the struggle for a healthier university work culture.  

Anna Edwards has just completed a degree in History at the University of Sheffield and is currently undertaking an MA in Historical Research, where she will be continuing her work on the history of the emotions and mental health. Anna aspires to complete a PhD in history and to one day publish her research

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