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Students sailing for mental health awareness claim there is a suicide crisis at UK universities

Students sailing across the Atlantic in memory of their friend and to raise awareness about suicide prevention, claim there is a suicide crisis at UK universities. The CEO of suicide prevention charity Papyrus wouldn’t call the current situation a crisis but says it is time to remove the stigma associated with suicide.

The Race4Rene crew members. Photo: James Harrison

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reports that the rate of suicide in the 12 months ending July 2017 for higher education students in England and Wales was 4.7 deaths per 100,000 students, which equates to 95 suicides. This is higher than in former years, according to the ONS, and male students have a significantly higher risk of committing suicide than their female counterparts.

In 2017, Imperial College London student James Harrison’s friend and peer René became part of those statistics.

Harrison and other of René’s friends, in addition to René’s father, are now sailing across the Atlantic in memory of their friend who tragically lost his battle with depression, and to fundraise for organisations who work with suicide prevention. “Through doing this I hope to celebrate René’s life, and to help those who are struggling with their own mental health,” Harrison tells Roar.

He calls the current state of mental health at UK universities “a suicide crisis”.

And maybe Harrison isn’t wrong. The Independent recently reported that the sudden death of a student appears to be Bristol University’s 13th suicide in three years, and 84 young men in the UK take their own life each week, according to Harrison.

Screenshot from the Race4Rene website shows the route the novice team will be taking from Gran Canaria to Saint Lucia.

A national scandal that suicide is so stigmatised

CEO Ged Flynn in Papyrus says the crisis in the UK is not specific for universities. Suicide is still the main cause of death among young people, and suicide rates in the age group are actually lower for people in university than for people who are not enrolled.

“I would call it a national scandal rather than a crisis, and the scandal is that we do not talk about it when times get tough. It is still stigmatised to talk honestly about feeling down, we don’t even talk openly about death in general,” he says, adding that a culture of openness is needed to prevent young suicide.

“People still believe talking about suicide will make more people do it. That is nonsense. Suicide is an inherently human impulse, a neutral thing at best. It is a natural thing for people to think about in distress,” Flynn tells Roar. “We talk about suicide in secret. Even when people call our helpline, it takes them a while to say their thoughts out loud,” he adds.

Flynn thinks universities always can do more to ensure the well being of their students but adds that no one can ever do enough to prevent someone from taking their own life. “Universities need to ask themselves two hard questions. Are we doing everything we can to prevent suicide among our student body, and did we do everything we could to prevent something that has already happened,” Flynn says.

Although the statistics show men are at a higher risk, Flynn says “suicidal behaviour knows no gender boundary.” He adds that female suicidal behaviour is very prevalent too, even though it does not always lead to a lethal outcome. Still, he thinks openness may be easier for women than for men. “It might be a massive generalisation, but if men are in the pub, for example, they are very unlikely to be talking about their feelings, and will rather sit and discuss football. We need to find ways of getting into that culture,” Flynn adds.

Racing for René

René was a student at Bristol University and later at Imperial College London. The Race4Rene website describes him as “the most loving son, brother, friend and young man. He was incredibly intelligent, caring and ambitious.” Harrison adds to the description, telling Roar that “he was a kind and conscientious man. Truly wonderful.” He was also an avid rower, which is what led Harrison to meet René in university.

“René’s father is a keen sailor and was in the Navy. He wanted a way to remember his son and connect with Rene’s friends whilst fundraising for charities that had supported him,” Harrison explains when asked why sailing became the way the team chose to remember René. René’s father, Max Zamundio, reached out to Harrison and other friends after the passing of his son and assembled the team that is now part of the Race4Rene. Their goal, Harrison explains to Roar, is to raise money for Papyrus, and another charity called Child Bereavement UK.

Flynn commends the Race4Rene team for their effort. “What the Race4Rene-team is doing is reminding people that you can turn tragedy into hope, and reminding people to discuss their own feelings,” he says to Roar. “This is about more than remembering René, it is about creating awareness that suicide is preventable if we are open about how we feel.”

The Atlantic Rally for Cruisers  (ARC) is the largest Trans Ocean race of its kind in the world. Harrison, Zamudio and the other Race4Rene crew members will travel from Gran Canaria to Saint Lucia, a trip Harrison estimates will take about two or three weeks.

“Our crew is aiming to remove the stigma associated with mental health by creating a dialogue about it. If we are successful with our aims I hope that our Race4Rene campaign can continue to expand and spread our message because asking for help should not be as hard as crossing an ocean,” Harrison says.


You can contact the Samaritans by calling them for free from any phone on 116 123, or visiting to find details of your nearest branch if you or anyone you know are struggling with mental health issues.

You can contact Papyrus UK by calling them on  0800 068 41 41, texting at 0778 620 9697, or emailing [email protected]. Go to to find out more if you or anyone you know are struggling with mental health issues.

More information about the Race4Rene team and their fundraising can be found at


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