Coroner hears that Bristol University did not assist suicidal student before she died

  • img Harvey Cawdron
  • POSTED ON 23 Aug 2018

Claims

A coroner has been told that a vulnerable student at a university where there had been multiple sudden deaths was not given wellbeing support despite telling a department manager that she had attempted to take her own life. 

Natasha Abrahart, a second-year student at the University of Bristol, sent an email to a manager at the university's department of physics 2 months before she was discovered dead in April. 

The 20-year-old told the student administration manager that 'I wanted to tell you that the past few days have been really hard. I have been having suicidal thoughts and to a certain degree attempted it.' 

Her family told the pre-inquest review at Flax Bourton that despite the email, there seemed to have been no direct contact with the student wellbeing service. They also raised concerns about the 'very limited contact' that Abrahart had with her personal tutor, and questioned what allowances academic staff made when it became obvious that she was struggling with her studies. 

Her parents, Robert and Margaret, told the court through their barrister, Tom Stoate, that they were concerned about the risks posed to other students about to begin their studies at the university. 

Stoate said 'We take this opportunity to note the family’s particular concern that a student as vulnerable as Natasha appears to have had no direct contact from the student wellbeing service. We think that is potentially a very serious omission.' 

He also said that the family was concerned that Natasha might have 'fallen into a gap' between the university and the health professionals involved in her treatment. 'The family are also particularly concerned about the apparent lack of information sharing between the NHS agencies and the university.'

Stoate also shared the family's concerns that the university, since its submission to the court, said that no charges had been made to the system since the death of Natasha. He said 'We consider that this may indicate the presence of a continuing risk which may give rise to future deaths of students at Bristol University'. 

He urged Maria Voisin, the senior coroner for Avon, to consider making a report to stop future deaths. Voisin gave the university 3 weeks to supply more information about its wellbeing service. 

Natasha, who died on the 30th of April, is thought to have been the 10th of 11 students at the university to have died suddenly since October 2016. 

Natasha's parents paid tribute to their 'wonderful, caring daughter' in a statement outside the court.

They further said 'She was a hard-working, high-achieving individual. She was disciplined, well-organised, persistent, analytical and determined. She had her whole life in front of her and we still cannot believe that she is no longer with us.'

They added that 'Over the last two months we have conducted our own in-depth analysis of available material. This has provided a better understanding of what transpired. However, we still have a lot of questions and concerns. For the benefit of university students across the country we want to ensure that any lessons which can be learned from Natasha’s death are identified and acted upon.' 

Gus Silverman, a public law and human rights lawyer at Irwin Mitchell, who is representing Natasha's parents, said 'The number of recent deaths among students at the University of Bristol has been a matter of considerable and understandable public concern.' 

Next year, a full inquest will take place, and the Coroner is yet to decide on whether it will be heard in front of a jury. 

According to the Times, the university has claimed that the deaths occurred due to a 'cluster' effect rather than failings in pastoral care. David Gunnell, professor of epidemiology at the university and a leading authority on suicide research said that it was his instinct that the link between the 11 deaths was the result of a phenomenon where 1 death in a community could influence others.

The Times also reported that the coroner has found no link between the deaths, although the university has been criticised for its planned changes to support services, changes it insists will help vulnerable students but have been misunderstood.

The University of Bristol said 'We offer our sincere sympathies to Natasha’s family following her tragic death and will co-operate fully with the coroner to ensure any lessons learned are built into the support we provide our students.' 

It added that 'Mental health and well-being is fast emerging as the single biggest public health issue affecting young people today, both here in the UK and globally. We are taking every step we can, to work with our students to help them build the life-skills and resilience to cope with the pressures they face, and to identify vulnerable students as early as possible so we can support them with their mental health issues.' 

It also stated that 'Our whole-institution approach will help us reach out to our students more proactively. We are putting in place a structure of preventative services and policies to try and avoid our students reaching crisis point. Mental health leads from the NHS and Public Health England are actively engaged in the planning and development of this approach.'