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.