What the press says
Sir, The family of Harry Armstrong Evans are right to call on universities to publish the number of suicides among their students (news and leading_artiticle,Nov 1).There is an epidemic in mental health conditions among our young people, with one in six children in England experiencing probable mental disorder. Many of these problems worsened during the pandemic, and universities are increasingly likely to find more of their students struggling with anxiety or depression. They have a duty of care to support them, which some are failing to meet. A “Harry’s Law” would be a positive step towards making sure universities understand their role in safeguarding students’ mental health. I hope our higher education institutions embrace it: doing so would save lives.
Anne Longfield Chair,
Commission on Young Lives; Children’s Commissioner for England 2015-21
by Megan Ballantyne, Joshua Hughes and Amy Rushton
Parents open parliamentary petition for ‘Harry’s Law’ following death of Exeter student
Dec 13, 2022 – by Megan Ballantyne, Joshua Hughes and Amy Rushton
THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS CONTENT RELATING TO SUICIDE WHICH SOME READERS MAY FIND DISTRESSING
The parents of third-year Exeter student Harry Armstrong Evans, who died in June 2021, have launched a petition calling for universities to be legally required to publish their yearly suicide statistics and the departments in which these occur, in the hope that more accurate information can help prevent other students’ deaths.
Following the inquest into Harry’s death, University of Exeter Vice Chancellor Lisa Roberts was sent a ‘Report to Prevent Future Deaths,’ and the coroner, Guy Davies, criticised the University’s failure to respond to Harry’s “cry for help,” in the midst of an “acute mental health crisis.”
Exeposé sat down with Harry’s parents, Alice and Rupert, to share their son’s story and talk to them about why they are petitioning for ‘Harry’s Law.’ When Alice and Rupert Armstrong Evans first talk to us about their late son, Harry, they paint a picture of a happier time. Talking of Harry’s early years, Alice recounts how he, “was the only boy for three years in that school in a class with nine other little girls. He used to get inundated with Valentine’s cards! He was always Jesus in all the Christmas plays, that sort of thing.”
“He was quite a large person, as in, he was gangly.” She goes on. “He was tall for his age. He was a big baby, and later he was the tallest in the class.”
After this upbringing, Harry went to a co-educational primary school in Dorset, in Port Regis. “He did all the usual things — he won a prize one year in one of the classes, and he developed his own little character, I think really. He was lefthanded and he had the most beautiful handwriting ever. That was one of the reasons I think they offered him a scholarship. Then he won a scholarship to go to Winchester College. And he got the headmaster’s prize to get in there.”
Alice begins to tell us that, “he really wasn’t sporty,” as a child but Rupert jumps in. “Well you say that, he rowed and he did croquet,” and both laugh. “But he wasn’t really your cricket and rugby type,” Alice says.
“In his house at Winchester, in the first year, there was this wonderful, ornate desk… All the boys have to stand up, and the tallest boy gets given this fabulous desk. And that was Harry. It’s just a little thing, but it sort of sticks in my mind.
Really he was much taller than the others. But a quiet, kind person.” Alice and Rupert tell us how Harry received three offers of university places but chose Exeter because, “he’d been a long way from home before [for school], and being close and able to come back at the weekends we thought would be a good idea. Once Covid started in March 2020, he moved back home and stayed home the whole of that year and did his final year exams from home. He returned, just before January to do his exams, but he got there a bit early because he wanted to really go for it and get good results.” Alice explains.
Despite a strong previous academic record, Harry failed his January exams. “It seems that somehow, you know he didn’t do well and he messed them up for whatever reason,’ Alice tells us. We’re really not quite sure why, but at one point he told me that he hadn’t properly uploaded the one exam that he thought he’d actually done quite well in. “I believe it was at that point he asked his tutor when he could resit this exam. And I think it was then that his tutor told him that if those exams were resat they’d be capped at 40 per cent. My understanding is that this made Harry descend into some sort of depression. He never actually took another exam after that.”
“He’d been doing pretty well up to that point,” Rupert tells us. ‘So he was certainly in line for a 2:1 or possibly a first. And it was the fact that his results absolutely collapsed and nobody picked up on it.” Harry got 21 per cent in his January exams, after a previously sound academic record. “I mean it can’t be possible that nobody noticed that he did really badly in his exams, and he’s done really well before. Nobody ended up explaining to him his options.”
When Alice reached out to Wellbeing Services expressing concern for her son in May 2021, on multiple occasions, multiple technical and handling errors meant that her concerns were not followed up on. In the same month, Harry emailed his personal tutor and copied in the Wellbeing Services, saying ‘I have been in isolation in my virtually empty hall of residence.” He indicated that he had had some “significant personal problems” in the run-up to the exams, and that he’d “spent so much time isolated by myself in my flat with almost no human contact.
It really has had an adverse effect on my mental health. I really struggled to think straight and the exams for me were a horrible culmination of my stresses.” No one from the University ended up speaking to Harry either in person or on the phone following this email or Alice’s calls.
“You know it’s all very well, to say, which is what the defense was, frankly, thateverything [relating to welfare and support] is written down. But Harry reallyneeded a human person to talk to as human beings, and he didn’t get that.” Thecoroner’s ‘Report to Prevent Future Deaths,’ given to Vice Chancellor LisaRoberts, also criticised the University’s lack of proactive engagement in Harry’scase, with coroner Guy Davies stating in this report: “Nobody from the universityattempted to speak to or visit Harry despite numerous concerns being raisedregarding his wellbeing. There was a total absence of personal engagement…”
He went on: “Research has consistently shown that most students and staff who experience poor mental health do not access formal support. The university response was entirely by email and can be characterized as reactive. The evidence indicated a marked reluctance to respond flexibly and proactively to concerns.” “Harry was very conscientious,” Rupert tells us. “They said he turned up to every single tutorial and meeting that they had on the course and he was a perfectionist — if things went wrong he tended to blame himself and feel really bad about it. That doesn’t seem to have been taken into account.”
He was a perfectionist — if things went wrong he tended to blame himself and feel really bad about it. That doesn’t seem to have been taken into account.
Alice elaborates, “I think he was deeply hurt that he couldn’t resit his exams without that 40 per cent cap. But he did try to help himself… He sent an email to his tutor, he was asking what his options would be to try and save his degree and what MSCs he could do — he was thinking of doing something in computing. But because it was the beginning of half term his tutor didn’t reply to it quickly. This is a letter which when I read it, you know, is somebody asking for help. It’s just so upsetting because I know that my son would never have wanted to have killed himself. He just didn’t know any other route. And he didn’t just go off and do it, he’d already tried to help himself.”
Guy Davies also suggested that academic tutors at Exeter were ill-equipped to deal with student mental health issues, and should receive suicide prevention training, stating in his report that, ‘The evidence [from the trial] indicated an absence of mandatory training for academic staff on suicide prevention and mental health awareness,’ and suggested that this was an area the university should improve. “This suggested training for academic staff is not in psychiatry or anything medical, but purely being able to flag up concerns, because there is no face-to-face training at the moment.” Alice clarifies Following their son’s death,
Alice and Rupert tried to find accurate information about past student suicides from the University, but found it extremely difficult to do so. They believe there have been 12 suicides at the University over the last six years, eight of which have been officially confirmed by a coroner. According to a National World report, 67 of 114 UK universities said they did not hold information on student suicide rates (59 per cent).
“I tried to find out about suicide from Exeter University and they wouldn’t tell me anything. I then had to send a Freedom of Information request. And I was given some information but really not a lot. It was just impossible to get a straight answer from university. This is what really has led us, to in some small way, to try to enable parents and friends and students themselves to know what universities’ suicide statistics are, and in what subjects.” To try and make information about student suicides more transparent, Harry’s parents have set up a parliamentary petition for ‘Harry’s Law.’ The law would require universities to release their yearly suicide statistics and the department in which they occur. “What university would want there their numbers of suicides to be publicised? Of course they don’t. We would like it because hopefully there might be a competition between universities for the least number of suicides,” Alice tells us. “I mean [the University of Exeter] have been sweeping the information under the carpet because they initially came back with a a figure of suicides hereabout three.”
What university would want there their numbers of suicides to be publicised? Of course they don’t
‘Harry’s Law’ would also mean that universities could be placed into special measures by the Department of Education if their suicide figures exceed the national average. Harry’s parents hope that, with accurate information on student suicides publicly available, universities will be forced to confront the issue, and that this information will also allow parents and students to make informed decisions about their education. “If you don’t have the information then you don’t have to hold up your hands and say there’s a problem. You just say we don’t know. We have no information on that — end of story. Whereas if you have the number of people who’ve taken their lives published on your website, and which faculty they belong to, you can be absolutely sure that pastoral services and standards will have to improve… At the moment, it’s a race to the bottom, not a race to the top. There is no incentive.” Rupert tells us. Rupert and Alice also hope that the accurate information ‘Harry’s Law’ would provide can help universities to see patterns in student suicide rates, which could then inform their suicide prevention strategies. “We are pretty much experts now on student suicide. I have noticed it frequently happens after they think they’ve done badly in exams. So if a student’s exams have gone badly, they should have those people who were his tutor, and his wellbeing department, informed… Harry had done very badly considering what he’d done before, and they should have spotted that sign, which I can recognise today having only read about it.
”Although Harry’s parents have spoken a lot about how universities can prevent student suicides, they also hope that ‘Harry’s Law’ and the results of the inquest into Harry’s death can change how universities view student mental health and encourage them to be proactive in taking care of their students’ “The thing is it’s the tip of the iceberg.” Alice tells us, “because for every student who regrettably takes their own life, there are probably a dozen more who attempted it, and a great number who are just unhappy. There must be thousands who are unhappy. And it’s supposed to be one of the best times of your life. And for students to go to university and to be really unhappy, it’s tragic.” Despite the tragedy they have faced, Alice and Rupert told us that the main message they would like students to understand is that, “Things will get better and fall into place. There is always a future, there is always something else if something goes wrong. [Young adults] just need to know that things can get better. No one needs to kill themselves because they did a bad exam. I would love that message to get across. Also, an anti-suicide charity called Papyrus found that talking to schoolchildren about suicide actually lessens suicides. And I think ‘if only I had had a chat with my son about suicide’. We could have said to Harry… we don’t care if you’re stacking shelves in Tesco, it doesn’t matter. No university degree is worth taking your life for. And I imagine most parents would think that.”
No university degree is worth taking your life for Alice Armstrong Evans MP for Exeter, Ben Bradshaw, told Exeposé when asked about his views on ‘Harry’s Law:’ “I am totally supportive of ‘Harry’s Law’ and have been concerned for some time about how our universities and mental health services deal with students at risk and their families. When I was a member of the Health Select Committee I helped initiate and ultimately draft a major report into suicide, which identified serious shortcomings in the current approach and made a number of important recommendations on what needed to change. Sadly, none of these has been taken forward by the Conservative Government, while our mental health services and services, in general, have continued to deteriorate after 12 years of cuts.” A spokesperson for the Students’ Guild said, “We understand the pressures that students face, academically, socially, financially and the need to have services that properly support our student community. Mental health, wellbeing and support is one of the Officers and Guild’s collective priorities for the year and we will continue to work collaboratively with the University on improving the provisions in these areas. ”A spokesperson for the University of Exeter said, “We are deeply saddened by Harry’s death and the family’s loss. We are carefully considering the Coroner’s detailed conclusions in this case. We continually review and improve the wellbeing support we provide based on evidence and learnings, including from rare tragic cases such as Harry’s, and we will learn the lessons to enhance our support and operations further, specifically in the areas recommended by the Coroner. We are acutely aware of the current mental health challenges for young people and the difficulties facing external services and have invested significantly in student welfare and wellbeing support in recent years. Student health and wellbeing is always the University of Exeter’s top priority. We also welcome and support the recent Universities UK guidance on suicide prevention and their recommendation on a trusted student contact when there are serious mental health concerns. A significant number of the UK recommendations have already been implemented at the University of Exeter, and we will implement all the recommendations.”
The petition is available to sign here. https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/627329
If these issues affect you, you can get in touch with: Samaritans 116 123 or Exeter Student Nightline 01392 724000
Article from print issue 738.
Sat 8 October 2022
Mother’s fears about her son ‘lost’ by university
Nicola Woolcock Education Editor
A mother phoned a university well-being service in the weeks before her son took his own life but received no response because of flaws in a computer system, an inquest was told yesterday.
Alice Armstrong Evans contacted Exeter University with concerns about her son, Harry, 21. She spoke directly to the service and also left two voicemails, but the case was automatically closed because of processing errors.
Armstrong Evans told the hearing in Truro, Cornwall: “I don’t know how many mums ring up about their sons but it was the first time I had rung the university and it was in his third year. Wasn’t that a red flag? Was I just dismissed because I’m just the mother?”
In a statement read out earlier in the hearing, she said: “I spoke for a long time on the telephone to an administrator who said that somebody would get in touch with Harry and this led me to believe the university’s welfare department would be speaking to him.
“Because the individuals seemed kind and understanding, I put my faith that somebody would be in touch with him. I now see that as the biggest mistake of our lives.”
The physics and astrophysics undergraduate had been concerned about passing his degree after disappointing module results. He was also anxious about his family’s finances.
He was found dead at his home in Launceston, Cornwall, in June last year. Mark Sawyer, the university’s head of wellbeing and welfare services, told of “technical challenges”. He said: “The voicemail message was put in a particular area of our case note system and the welfare team advised of a referral. Unfortunately, the voicemail could not be attached to the inquiry that went to our welfare practitioners, which said, ‘Please find attached a referral.’ The practitioner wrote back and said, ‘Where’s the referral?’
“But the practitioner used the wrong function to ask that question. They did it as answering the inquiry and … unbeknown to the practitioner, closed down the inquiry.” Sawyer said a new system was now in place.
Harry later emailed his personal tutor and the wellbeing service about his worries but Sawyer said there was nothing to indicate he was in a crisis. “There were no obvious red flags to any of us at that time,” he said.
The coroner’s conclusion will be given at a later date.
– official newspaper of the University of Glasgow
Niamh Flanagan, Deputy Editor-in-Chief
20th November 2022
The case of Natasha Abrahart highlights the importance of a legally defined duty of care for universities toward their students.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that our University and others across the country owe students a duty of care in regard to their wellbeing and personal safety. With school leavers in Scotland being as young as seventeen when they begin university, the pressures of independent living whilst undertaking higher education all too often have significant adverse impacts on the mental health of young people. Widely referred to as a “crisis”, student mental health in the UK has continued to worsen over the past decade, with an estimated 270,000 students seeking mental health support across the UK this year alone.
270,000 is a huge figure, and it can be difficult to visualise what that means in real, or human terms. The figure averages out at over 2000 students per UK university seeking mental health support in the past year. Surely, in order to adequately support such a volume of students, each with complex mental health needs influenced by personal circumstances, universities should have in place a statutory duty of care, a legally defined obligation that student experience can be measured against. As parents of Natasha Abrahart found out this year, no such duty exists in common law.
Natasha Abrahart was 20 years old, and a second-year physics student at the University of Bristol, when she took her own life on 30 April 2018. Natasha had been diagnosed with chronic Social Anxiety Disorder a few months previous to her death. In May 2022, a ruling found that the University of Bristol had caused the death of Natasha Abrahart in failing to make reasonable adjustments for her condition, resulting in prolonged suffering leading to her suicide. However, the ruling stipulated that the University, in placing Natasha on a regime of oral assessments identical to that of students who did not suffer from her condition, had failed in its duties to her under the Equality Act. The judge did not find that the University had any extended legal duty of care to provide psychological support to Natasha.
What this ruling makes clear is that under UK law, no university student is owed a duty of care from their educational institution. Whilst many universities, our own included, make reference to a duty of care in their wellbeing policies, the duty they refer to is simply a moral one, as should a university fail to perform said duty, they face no legal liability.
This Autumn, the University of Bristol attempted to appeal the ruling made earlier this year, an attempt which was denied by the court. Natasha’s parents, Robert and Margaret Abrahart spoke outside the court following the ruling, of their bright, diligent, and hardworking daughter, who had loved her subject, who was forced to watch her dreams of the future fall apart as she was subject to unnecessary psychological trauma by an institution that should have protected her. Natasha’s story is unspeakably tragic. Heartbreakingly, it is far from the only of its kind.
Official estimates predict that 64 students killed themselves in the 2019-20 academic year, which is the most recent available data on the issue. The Abrahart family, along with 25 other bereaved families who have lost their children to suicide during their time of study, are petitioning the government to implement a legal duty of care within higher education toward students, forming a group named the LEARN network. Amongst such parents is Hilary Grimes, whose daughter Phoebe killed herself whilst studying philosophy at Newcastle University in 2020. Phoebe struggled with the conditions of lockdown, feeling isolated from teachers and friends, and found her workload unmanageable in this context.
The LEARN network is petitioning for universities to be legally obligated to adhere to standards of pastoral support and thresholds for intervention – to what can be reasonably expected in the name of student wellbeing and support. In the case of Natasha, they both failed to do what could be reasonably expected and were proven not to be legally liable for such a failure. Her parents are rightly outraged, and their battle to change this for future students is commendable. Calls for a statutory duty of care have been dismissed by Universities UK – who claim that “Universities go beyond their legal requirements to prioritise the mental health and wellbeing of their staff and students” – a statement which tackles the root of the issue in its admission that prioritising mental and health and wellbeing of students is beyond the legal requirements of higher education institutions.
An investigation this summer found that 30 University of Glasgow students had died between 2018-2022. When asked as to the nature of the deaths of students, the University responded that they do not record the nature of the deaths of students and as such had no record of the number of student suicides. Whilst not all 30 deaths may be attributable to suicide, it is fairly safe to assume, in the absence of properly recorded data, that a proportion of them must be. If the University is failing even to record student suicides, it is clear that it is definitely not being held accountable for the role it played as an institution in preventing them.
Young people coming to university are at the very start of their lives, careers, buoyed by the potential of what higher education can offer them and the experiences it provides. At its best it is a time like no other, for nurturing academic passions, meeting new people, and widening life experiences. But whilst university provides students with a set of conditions capable of facilitating freedom and self-discovery, that same set of conditions can also be conducive to an experience of distress, of being overwhelmed, or struggling to find your feet. Either experience is completely normal – but the latter experience should never need to culminate to the extent that a student takes their own life. That is where higher education institutions have a duty to intervene for students, to provide pastoral support, and to make reasonable adjustments.
A statute on student safety will come too late for Natasha Abrahart and countless others like her. Her story should serve as a testament to just how vital such legislation is to ensure the safety of future generations of students, and holding universities to account for their obligation, both legal and moral, of enacting a duty of care.
Universities should be legally required to disclose how many of their intake have taken their own lives.
No experience is more traumatic for a parent than the death of a child, and for that death to be self-inflicted compounds the tragedy. Yesterday Rupert Armstrong Evans paid moving tribute to his son Harry, an undergraduate at Exeter University, who was found dead at home in the summer a few months after failing an exam. He was speaking after the inquest, at which the coroner criticised the university for failing Harry amid a mental health crisis, and for a “catalogue of missed opportunities coupled with systems failings”.
These comments give weight to a campaign initiated by Mr Armstrong Evans to compel universities to publish the number of suicides among their students. Under such legislation, dubbed “Harry’s law”, coroners’ courts would be obliged to tell universities when the suicide of an enrolled student is registered, and universities would be required to publish annually a record of student suicides. Mr Armstrong Evans is right to press for this. No parent should have to undergo the torment he has suffered, and his proposals might have a salutary effect on universities in impressing upon them an obligation to safeguard students’ mental health.
There were more than 5,000 deaths due to suicide in England and Wales in 2020, including an estimated 64 students. But these are only estimates, as official records are lacking; hence the pressure for mandatory reporting. And while every victim of suicide is unique, there are some recurring patterns in the data. Young men are more likely to take their own lives than young women, and students who leave home for the first time may be especially vulnerable.
It has long been this way. In his pioneering study of suicide more than 120 years ago, the social theorist Émile Durkheim noted that populations with higher levels of education were more prone to suicide. The questioning spirit of young students may make them susceptible to harsh self-criticism and despair when they believe they are falling short. This appears to have been the case with Harry and other gifted students at UK universities whose suicides have been recorded in recent years.
Moreover, depressive disorder is the most significant contributor to suicides among young people. This is not a matter of just feeling sad, as everyone does sometimes: it is a clinical illness born of distorted thinking, which stimulates feelings of excessive guilt and worthlessness. There are validated psychological and pharmacological treatments for addressing mood disorders. Universities fail in a duty of care to their students if they skimp on the availability of trained counsellors for those who are struggling emotionally.
Universities UK, the body representing higher education, has in recent weeks recommended that universities contact family members or carers if they have concerns about the mental health of a student. It is perplexing that such guidance needs to be given, but it does and it is a problem that it is merely advisory rather than binding. Universities have a duty of care and safety, but not specifically a legal framework regarding students’ mental health. The evidence suggests that some institutions have followed an unduly legalistic approach of requiring a student to first give permission for their loved ones to be contacted. This sort of defensiveness will lead to further tragedies. Universities should have no room for manoeuvre in disclosing their mental health procedures. Harry’s law, if enacted, could save lives.
Issue 05 – November- 4th
“Harry Armstrong Evans was a student at Exeter University when he killed himself. The coroner at his inquest criticised the university for not responding to his ‘cry for help’. He had sent an email about his poor state of mind after bad exam results, but no one from the university ever spoke to him about this or replied substantively to an anxious voicemail from his mother. Harry’s parents complain that universities do not have a duty of care towards their students. Troubled students fall through this gap. Since the age of majority was reduced from 21 to 18 half a century ago, universities have not been in loco parentis, so they have become careless about students. At the same time, parents have no right to know anything about their student children because they are, in law, adults. Their child could be in utter despair and yet the university (if it knew, which it often does not) could tell them nothing without the child’s consent. Many students, especially those leaving home for the first time, are much more like children than adults. For their own sake, parliament should recognise this and give all full-time students under 21 the status of children”.
… petition for new rules regarding the suicide of higher education students.