Lancaster University’s Suicide Rate: The Truth

Why do some people choose to take their own life? Is there something inherent about Lancaster University that causes suicide? Almost everyone who has any association with the university has heard some variation of the urban legend: ‘Lancaster University has the highest student suicide rate of any university in the UK’. What is worrying is that this assertion is usually told as fact rather than speculation, and many people even cite it as a reason not to study here. Another legend is that Bowland Tower was made obsolete after a series of students committed suicide by jumping off the roof.  A bit of old fashioned journalistic investigation proves that there is a lot of conjecture and folklore unduly branding Lancaster with a darker history than it merits, though there is a disturbing explanation as to where the rumours came from.

It should be made clear from the outset that there is no easily accessible, annually observed ‘student suicide rate’. Whilst there have been several studies into specific universities about mental health issues and student wellbeing, there is no record comparing figures of suicides of all of the universities in the UK. It seems that the university archive does not keep a constantly updated record of student suicides, nor do any of the university’s publications acknowledge them when such tragedies do occur. So, when someone says Lancaster has the highest student suicide rate, where are they getting their figures from?

Whilst one document was located in the archive on the subject of student suicides (which shows that in the 15 years from 1980 to 1995 there were five incidents of suicide at Lancaster), there is no paper trail that comprehensively paints the entire picture from the time the university opened. What is needed is someone who knows the university, and its history and no one has a better knowledge of Lancaster University’s history than Marion McClintock, university archivist and author of Shaping the Future: a history of The University of Lancaster. According to her certain significant rumours can be immediately dispelled. The first was Bowland Tower.

The Tower’s tired appearance and current lack of occupancy has acted as a catalyst for stories of dramatic suicides. However, it was not closed because a large number of suicides occurred there. The actual reasons are much less exciting, McClintock says. ‘Since its opening in 1968, the Tower had not once been refurbished, and it was therefore deemed unfit for purpose. Upon its closure, it was also questioned as to whether it would ever be suitable to use as accommodation – not because of the risk of suicides, but because small children might fall through the bars of the balconies on the upper floors’. So whilst the tower may have been considered dangerous, the university’s concerns are out of pragmatism, not fear of sinister catastrophes. Some also refer to the fact that the lift in the Tower does not go directly from the ground floor to the top as evidence of a response to prolific suicides. In reality, this again is merely a practical issue, as many people frequently disturbed the occupants of Bowland Tower by going to the top floor simply to enjoy the spectacular views.

So if its closure was not due to suicides, where did the Bowland Tower stories originate from? This is where some of the myth unfortunately overlaps with reality. In the early January of 1990, McClintock recalls there was a fall from Bowland Tower. McClintock was at the university that afternoon and recalls the shocking circumstances around the death. She recounts how at dusk on a wet Monday, a student fell from the top of the tower onto the verandah below. So dramatic was this fall that this single incident appears by itself to have caused a perception that Lancaster and suicide had an unduly close connection.

There is also perhaps a further and unsettling explanation as to where the legend originates.  Once again,  there is no paper documentation of the incidences, but it seems there was one particularly disturbing academic year early in the new millennium in which there may have been as many as seven completely unrelated student deaths, involving people who did not know one another and seemingly had no connecting circumstances with one another whatsoever. McClintock recounts: “Not all the deaths were certainly suicides, and all of them arose from completely different circumstances. Nevertheless, they seem to have been conflated in people’s minds with the earlier tragedy.”

So it seems likely, that the reason so many people believe Lancaster has the highest student suicide rate is not down to any researched evidence, but rather an unprecedented succession of student deaths, that coincidentally clustered together here some 10 or more years ago, and which became connected in the collective memory with the earlier and single death. This anomalous spike should be remembered as just that – an anomaly.


With thanks to Marion McClintock