Family Of Natasha Abrahart Continue Campaign To Improve Support For Vulnerable Students
The parents of a vulnerable student who took her life are continuing their campaign to improve support for young people at university.
Natasha Abrahart, a second-year physics student at the University of Bristol, died in April 2018.
The 20-year-old was the tenth of 11 University of Bristol students to die between October 2016 and May 2018.
Natasha, originally from Nottingham, had been a high-achieving student until her second year at the University. Academic staff then became aware she was struggling and was experiencing anxiety and panic attacks in relation to oral assessments that she was required to complete as part of her course.
In February 2018 a GP diagnosed Natasha as suffering from “chronic social anxiety with suicidal ideation” following the first of several acts of suicidal behaviour. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) describes social anxiety disorder as a “persistent fear of or anxiety about one or more social or performance situations that is out of proportion to the actual threat posed by the situation” which can “have a great impact on a person's functioning, disrupting normal life, interfering with social relationships and quality of life and impairing performance at work or school.”
Despite at least one member of staff being aware of Natasha’s suicidality, and a senior tutor recording “this does seem to be a genuine case of some form of social anxiety”, no changes were made to her oral assessments in the lead up to her death. When Natasha missed or avoided some oral assessments she was docked course marks. On the day she died Natasha was due to give an assessed oral presentation to students and staff in a 329-seat lecture theatre.
An inquest into Natasha’s death in May 2019 concluded that she had been neglected by mental health services. The Senior Coroner for Avon, Maria Voisin, had ruled that looking into whether the University had complied with its legal duties was outside the scope of the inquest.
Natasha’s parents, Robert and Margaret Abrahart aged 64 and 58, via their lawyers at Irwin Mitchell, have now filed court documents challenging the University’s role in Natasha’s death.
The documents argue that through a combination of negligence and disability discrimination the University contributed to a decline in Natasha’s mental state and to her eventual suicide.
Robert said: “Natasha was bright and academically able. Her self-esteem was rooted in her academic ability and achievement. However, because of the discrimination that we believe she suffered Natasha became acutely and increasingly distressed. The fear of failing, not performing, or not progressing on the course affected her deeply and she became pre-occupied by feelings of worthlessness.
“We believe that the University should have done more to support Natasha throughout her second year. We don’t understand why alternative assessment methods were not put in place. Instead the University continued to put her through the ordeal of oral assessments and downgraded her when she performed badly or couldn’t face attending.
“The pain of losing Natasha is something that will never leave us. We know nothing will bring her back but we feel the University of Bristol should at least acknowledge what happened in the lead up to Natasha’s death, show some remorse or regret, and apologise to her family. Until that happens how will the University prevent the same mistakes that we believe occurred from happening again?
“We will continue to campaign to ensure that other students don’t endure the suffering Natasha did.
“We urge all universities to ensure their staff, and wellbeing services, provide the necessary help and care to vulnerable students, who are often young and hundreds of miles away from home.”
Robert and Margaret are crowdfunding to support their legal challenge.
Gus Silverman is a public law and human rights specialist at Irwin Mitchell representing the family.
Expert Opinion“The University owed Natasha legal duties not to cause her psychological harm and to ensure its assessment regime didn’t discriminate against her as a disabled student. Natasha’s parents are firmly of the view that the University didn’t meet these legal duties.
“After the Coroner ruled against considering whether the University complied with its legal duties Natasha’s parents have now had to turn to the civil courts to seek justice for their daughter. They are determined to try and improve the standard of care provided to vulnerable students around the country.
“All universities and higher education institutions need be aware of their obligations under the Equality Act to ensure that disabled students, including those disabled by virtue of mental illnesses, are not unlawfully discriminated against by ‘one size fits all’ assessment processes.” Gus Silverman - Associate Solicitor
For more on Robert and Margaret’s appeal visit www.crowdjustice.com/case/natashainquest/
Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting families affected by human rights issues at our public law section.
At the inquest into Natasha’s death Dr Adrian Barnes, the Senior Tutor in the School of Physics, said the department had identified “a need for pastoral support for Natasha” in October 2017. Internal University emails read to the court stated “we had a problem of being unable to get…Natasha Abrahart to say anything at all” during her first oral assessment. The inquest heard that, while Natasha’s written work was of a high standard, she was docked marks because of what Dr Chris Bell, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Physics, described as “her failure to engage” with oral assessments.
Dr Barnes said that when he met with Natasha in December 2017 and February 2018 “I never detected an unwillingness to do something. I felt that there was someone there trying and wanting to do something but needing more support in working out how they would do that”. After the meeting in February Dr Barnes told the court that he contacted the University’s Disability Services for advice on what “reasonable adjustments” they could make to Natasha’s course but accepted that he never heard back and didn’t chase up the email. The court heard that the University was under a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments to its assessments to prevent disabled students from being placed at a significant disadvantage when compared with their non-disabled peers. The court heard that Dr Barnes concluded Natasha was suffering from “a genuine case of some form of social anxiety.”
Barbara Perks, a Student Administration Manager in the School of Physics, told the inquest that on 16 February she met with a friend of Natasha’s who said the student was depressed and had been self-harming. Ms Perks told the Coroner that she contacted the University’s Student Wellbeing Service who sent her a list of online resources that Natasha could access. Ms Perks went on to explain that in the early hours of 20 February Natasha emailed her saying “I wanted to tell you that the past few days have been really hard, I've been having suicidal thoughts and to a certain degree attempted it.”
Later that day Ms Perks helped take Natasha to a University GP who noted that she had made a suicide attempt with “definite intent” was “in a state of acute distress” and was “at high risk of ending her life given her presentation”. The University employed doctor concluded that Natasha was suffering from “chronic social anxiety with suicidal ideation” and made an urgent referral for her to be seen by specialists at the Avon & Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust.
Under questioning Ms Perks said she “probably” told the Student Wellbeing Service about the email from Natasha. However, the Coroner was told that there was no record of this and a Student Wellbeing Manager, Karen Harvey, who had taken responsibility for Natasha’s case said in a statement that she “was not aware of any risk that would have necessitated my intervention”.
During her evidence Ms Perks also said that it was “entirely possible” that she had told Ms Harvey that Natasha did not want direct contact with specialist advisers, however, the court was again told that there was no record of this.
On 22 March, 2018, following a further two suicide attempts, Natasha was visited at home by a Crisis Team. A nurse from the team told the Coroner that Natasha was at “significant risk” and that he wrote to the University GP the next day identifying a trigger for self-harm and suicide as “stress from University” and noted there was “a module which is assessed in an interview format which she finds very difficult”.
On 20 April 2018 Natasha met with a GP at the Student Health Service, who told the court that she didn’t discuss passing on the information about suicide triggers to anyone in the University.
The court heard that on 30 April, 2018, internal University emails noted that Natasha had missed three out of five oral assessments and that it was “going to be tight” as to whether she passed the module. Dr Barnes told the court that Natasha would not have been able to continue on the course if she did not pass this module. In a statement read at the beginning of the inquest Natasha’s mother said she thought that the previously high-achieving student would have seen this as “a huge failure”.
The University’s disability policy required staff to provide “interim-support” to students disabled by mental illness, and that this could extend to modifying assessments, but Natasha was still expected to take part in the assessed presentation on 30 April. A consultant psychiatrist, Dr Mynors-Wallis, told the court that Natasha’s social anxiety would have made oral assessments “significantly worse” for her and that the planned assessment on 30 April would have been “particularly difficult for Natasha”.
He concluded that “the stress of the University course was certainly a factor and among the stresses that Natasha was facing at the time she died”.