Why parents left broken by suicide are begging universities to do more

When Bob and Maggie Abrahart remember their daughter Natasha, they think about how beautiful, bright and big-hearted she was.

A joy to have around when she was growing up, she loved baking cakes for her friends and playing the piano until the sky darkened and the stars twinkled above her.

‘She was our practically perfect daughter,’ Maggie tells Metro in an emotional phone call. 

Autodidactic and diligent, Natasha’s teachers at her Nottinghamshire school also admired her tenacity and hard-working nature. She was a firm problem solver and solid researcher, often found sat in front of a computer to study beyond the school’s physics syllabus – the subject she was most passionate about.

When Natasha achieved the A-Levels to study physics at the prestigious University of Bristol, Bob and Maggie were proud. There was no need to worry about their daughter moving away from home. She was consistent, mature and independent. She was going to thrive.

So when Natasha took her own life just months after she moved down south, her parents were left horrified that their daughter’s mental health could have deteriorated so quickly in such a short space of time.

‘When we lost our daughter, our world fell apart,’ Bob says. ‘How many more families will lose children before things change?’

Natasha’s death was part of a spate of suicides in 2018, adding to a growing number of calls for academic institutions to do more to protect their students and their wellbeing.

A 2022 survey by the charity Humen found 50% of the UK’s 2.7 million students have had their mental health negatively affected while at university, while it’s thought around 100 students a year die by suicide. The most recent available data from the Office of National Statistics show 64 students died by suicide in 2020.

Parents who have lost their children in such tragic circumstances are now petitioning the government for academic institutions to have a legally binding duty of care towards their students – the same duty that applies to employers to keep their staff safe at work.

A petition set up by campaigners, which has amassed more than 100,000 signatures as part of a movement called #ForThe100, has since been handed to parliament and is scheduled to be debated next month.

In Natasha’s case, it was her worsening social anxiety which had a significant effect on her studies – something her parents only discovered after she died.

‘There was a laboratory module, where they had projects and then were assessed with an interview,’ Bob explains. ‘That’s where her problems started. Her social anxiety stopped her from doing the interviews.

‘As this six month period progressed, Natasha became more anxious and depressed, eventually becoming suicidal. The university was notified, but it made no damn difference at all. Right up to the very end, they decided, instead of the one to one interview, to do this group presentation in this enormous lecture theatre. That’s what pushed her over the edge. She just wasn’t going to do it.’

Upon learning Bristol University had not made adjustments to cater for Natasha’s condition, her parents decided to take legal action. ‘When something like this happens, you never give up,’ Bob says,  ‘You never stop fighting.’ 

While Bob and Maggie won part of their case, with the University of Bristol being told they should have made adjustments for Natasha under the Equality Act, the judge ruled that the university did not owe Natasha a duty of care.

Part of the judgement read: ‘There is no statute or precedent which establishes the existence of such a duty of care owed by a university to a student’.

The ruling has galvanised Bob and Maggie to petition the government to make this vital change common law.

‘We’re calling for universities to have a statutory duty to protect their students from reasonably foreseeable harm, caused by either direct actions or a failure to act.’ Bob explains.

‘If you know someone is going through a mental health crisis, you don’t put them through further unnecessary distress. The judge ruled their actions lead to her death. They didn’t help her. It felt like they didn’t give a damn.’

The increased pressure on students in more recent years has made it all the more important for universities to look after those studying with them. Lockdown in particular is thought to have had a significant effect; Nightline, which is staffed by anonymous student volunteers, said it recorded a 51.4% increase in calls in 2020-21, and that this has grown since, with early data suggesting numbers for 2021-22 were 30% higher, and up a further 23% since the new academic year began.

The intensity of lockdown, heaped upon the pressure cooker environment of student halls, made for toxic environment for Oskar Carrick, who took his own life aged 21 in 2021.

Fascinated by the silver screen and a keen filmmaker, Oskar headed to Sheffield Hallam University to study film and TV production. Having previously been a shy, quiet and sensitive child, as he’d grown older, Oskar loved his friends and hanging out with his group.

His mum Maxine knew he was ready to leave their Kendal home. She had some concerns – Oskar had sustained a brain injury in a car accident a few years prior, which affected his memory and his sleep, but she just saw how eager her son was to meet new people and learn new skills.

‘He was considered disabled, and so we thought being in halls would be good for him in case he needed help,’ she tells Metro.co.uk.

However, it emerged after Oskar had died that he had become fixated on falling out with people, and had repeatedly tried to injure himself.

‘Oskar had become more desperate to please people,’ Maxine explains. ‘As it was lockdown, we didn’t get to see him, but we spoke a few times a week and he’d send us little videos. We thought he was having a really good time.

‘But he was getting twitchy and worried about falling out with people. He was living in an enclosed situation and I think that got on top of him. 

‘But we had no clue how severe things had got. We spoke to Oskar before he took his own life – he was asking us to bring his printer to university. He talked about how he was going to watch England play Scotland with his mates.’

Maxine continues: ‘We were stunned during the inquest when we found out several of his friends had been asking the university for help with our son because he’d been going through quite a self-destructive phase where he had been hurting himself. We’d had no idea.

‘Lockdown potentially exacerbated things, but it still didn’t stop the fact that the help should have been there. If anything, the university should have been more aware that students would be struggling.’

Maxine, who works as a secondary school teacher and so is aware of the strong duty of care between the school and its students, was also horrified to learn that Oskar had attempted suicide at university just weeks before, and was allowed to return to campus. While he had opted to have his information shared, the university did not inform the family, as it did not share ‘retrospective information’.

‘Universities need to have the same duty of care as employers,’ Maxine argues. ‘If I’d attempted suicide, my work wouldn’t just let me walk into my office the next day.

‘The inquest found Sheffield Hallam didn’t do anything wrong, but generally across universities, mental health support and wellbeing needs to be much stronger.

‘I believe if these steps had been taken, Oskar would still be with us today. I don’t believe he ever meant to take his own life. I think it was a desperate cry for help. If we’d have known, maybe things would have been different. 

‘We miss him every single day. It helps that his university friends have been so lovely and kind to us – but we have to live with the fact that Oskar is not with us anymore for the rest of our lives.’

Educational institutions having a lack of resources to ensure student wellbeing is a common theme Tanya Marwaha has noticed throughout her work at Baton of Hope, a wellbeing charity.

Tanya, 21, was drawn to their services after her own mental health nosedived while she studied at the London School of Economics. Although she had previously struggled with anxiety and depression, being at university exacerbated things, and she attempted suicide twice.

‘I felt hopeless,’ she tells Metro.co.uk. ‘It’s an extremely overwhelming experience, being at university. Everyone tells you that it is the best three years of your life – partying and enjoying yourself. But it wasn’t like that for me.

‘There’s so much pressure on young people – affording rent, getting good grades, navigating student loans – it’s easy to see why so many students crumble under that.

‘At school, you have your hand held and you’re supported. University is such a shift where many people are away from home for the first time, you’re dropped in the deep end and you’re totally unprepared.

‘I knew I needed to do something, otherwise I was just going to end up killing myself.’

Tanya tried to access LSE’s mental health and wellbeing service. She felt concerned that other people struggling with their mental health could end up spiralling, like she had, without any additional support. She began to lobby the university to improve their mental health service.

‘There was a cycle of students who wouldn’t want to approach the service because they felt service wasn’t providing any practical support,’ she explains.

Tanya understands that budgets across all universities are being stretched – in 2022, the UK university sector complained that institutions were being ‘squeezed and squeezed hard by inflation’.

However, along with Baton of Hope, she is calling for universities to at least signpost to external services if institutions themselves cannot provide essential support.

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