Bristol student Natasha was failed before her suicide. Now her parents are fighting for the truth
The BBC have released a new documentary about Natasha Abrahart’s death, the 11th suspected suicide at Bristol in just over a year
Natasha and Luke were second years at Bristol uni. The two friends had just been out for a buffet, and were chatting and walking back. Physics student Natasha was nervous about a presentation coming up in a few days.
Talented, kind, but also shy, Natasha told Luke she was worried about failing and getting kicked out of uni. She had already missed assessments and had been having panic attacks, but seemed to laugh it off.
Three days later she had taken her own life, becoming one of 11 Bristol students to die by suspected suicide in 18 months.
Since her death, Natasha Abrahart’s parents have been gathering evidence and trying to raise £75,000 to fund an inquest, which found that the local mental health trust had failed to provide basic care. Last week, a BBC documentary revealed the story behind her death, and her parents’ fight for the truth to come out.
‘She was quite shy from early on’
Natasha was a reserved child growing up. Her mum, Maggie, describes her as “quite shy from quite early on”. An easy going child who enjoyed playing by herself, Natasha always had quite a few people at her birthday parties.
As she grew up, Natasha excelled academically, became a keen cello player, and was consistently good at everything she did.
There was little doubt in their her parents’ minds that she would be able to cope with the academic pressure that comes with university life. “We didn’t know that she had social anxiety, we actually thought that she was getting better, that she was getting more confident,” Maggie Abrahart said.
At Bristol, Natasha settled in to university life
Bristol was Natasha’s favourite university and she was excited to start her Physics course in September 2016. She found friends in her four-person flat in halls, including English and Classics student Hope White.
Hope and Natasha immediately bonded and enjoyed going running together on The Downs, where she often returns to bring herself closer to Natasha’s memory.
Luke Unger came to Bristol to study English. He first met Natasha a couple of days after she moved into their flat in halls. He described their introduction as being slightly “awkward” – everyone was clearly apprehensive about starting university.
After a day of lectures, Luke remembers coming home to find freshly baked goods on the kitchen counter. Natasha never wanted to be the centre of attention but her generosity shone through. Despite the stress of first year, Natasha “put everyone at ease” with her calm disposition. Luke often reminisces with sadness and says that “being around her was always quite lovely”.
In second year, she began to struggle
The girls moved out of halls and into separate houses in their second year. Natasha had also started struggling academically and with her mental health. Her course involved oral presentations, including demanding one-on-one interviews with tutors.
In class, Natasha found herself unable to speak, and once fled out of the room. During a meeting with her supervisor, she opened up to experiencing panic attacks. Natasha knew that her missed marks would result in her failing the Physics module and she was petrified that she would be kicked off the course.
Natasha was referred to Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust in February 2018, after her first suicide attempt.
During prior meetings in December 2017 and February 2018, Dr Barnes “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”.
Natasha’s friend approached Barbara Perks, a Student Administration Manager in the School of Physics, on 16th February 2018 to explain that Natasha was depressed and self-harming.
Natasha was in contact with Perks herself – she had sent an email outlining her suicidal thoughts.
“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,” she wrote.
“I want to go to the student health clinic or wherever you think is a good place to go to help me through this, and I would like someone to go with me as I will find it very hard to talk to people about these issues.”
Natasha and Barbara were in close contact, and “on one occasion she went to Natasha’s flat and personally took her to the Student Health Service to see a GP for an emergency appointment,” the university said in a statement.
After a suicide attempt, Natasha was determined to return to uni
One month before her death, on March 20th, Natasha tried to kill herself at her student flat. Her flatmate phoned her parents, and Bob and Maggie took her home to Nottingham to recover.
Whilst at home, Natasha was visited on 22nd March by a Crisis Team. Despite her parents’ disapproval, she returned to uni – Natasha was adamant that she would be able to cope. She said she was safe and in contact with her GP.
Her parents couldn’t get their heads around the fact that Natasha was so distressed at university. To them, “she was the same person she had always been”.
What they were also unaware of was that this was her third suicide attempt that term.
Back at university, Natasha met with a GP at the Student Health Service on the 20th April. During their conversation she did not express a desire to pass on the information about suicide triggers to anyone in the university.
As term drew to a close, Natasha was due to take part in a laboratory conference on Monday 30th April, presenting to 40 people in a theatre and being questioned afterwards.
With her anxiety already causing her to miss assessments, it was uncertain whether Natasha would pass the module. Internal university emails noted that Natasha had missed three out of five oral assessments and that it was “going to be tight”.
On the Friday before, Natasha met with a manager in her school and discussed things which could be done to help her – not answering questions, or letting somebody else present.
Natasha said she wanted to go ahead, and was told she could change her mind on the day, or have any of the changes to her presentation made.
At the inquest into her death, the Abraharts’ barrister said “no proper measures” had been put in place by Monday.
That weekend, Luke took Natasha out for a meal at Za Za Bazaar on Harbourside. As they walked back, she told him how she wasn’t failing her exams and might get kicked out of uni.
She mentioned being nervous about the presentation on Monday.
Although Natasha was laughing as she said this, Luke knew something was up, and arranged to meet her for a Nando’s the following week. “It never happened. That was three days before she died,” Luke said.
Natasha passed away on Monday 30th April, the day of the presentation.
‘Things didn’t feel real, but I knew it was true’
The following morning police visited Bob and Maggie at their home in Nottingham to inform them that their daughter had hanged herself. “Things didn’t feel real, but I knew it was true,” Maggie said.
When Luke heard the news he felt hollow and devastated. Walking by the river, he stopped under Clifton Suspension Bridge, where he remained all night.
Just five days later, Ben Murray took his own life – the third suicide in two weeks, and the 11th in 18 months at Bristol uni. The atmosphere at the university soured considerably. Angry at the tragic loss of life and keen to see a change in university policy, students took to the streets in protest. An academic from Bristol University, angry at how his employer had managed the situation, wrote an article for The Tab in which he discussed the university’s reputation as “the suicide capital of the Russell Group.”
On a more personal level, Hope called the year “toxic” and Luke spoke of a “constant paranoia”, a sense of wondering: “Who’s next?”
Hope went to the university’s support services, however “because it was quite near to the end of the year they told me to turn to my friends and family and if I still felt bad come back at the start of the year because everyone was leaving now,” she said. “I didn’t feel too supported by university.”
Meanwhile, Natasha’s parents had logged into her uni account and seen the correspondence with the Student Health Service about her suicidal thoughts. They saw Natasha’s second year lab reports and the mark sheets for Practical Physics which showed the missed marks.
Wasting no time in their pursuit of answers, they began crowdfunding for an inquest. “You can’t accept what you’re told by the university or the mental health trust, as being the full truth.” Bob said.
Raising £22,000 to find out the truth
Natasha’s parents raised around £22,000, with sympathetic strangers donating anything between £5- £1000.
Before the inquest, the Abraharts’ solicitor, Gus Silverman, said: “This is a very high number of student deaths for any institution. It is incredibly important that there is a full and fearless enquiry into the circumstances leading up to Natasha’s death.”
Bob and Maggie rented a house for the six days in which the inquest took place. During this time, the actions of Bristol University, the student health care centre (GP) and The Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Trust were heavily scrutinised.
The coroner found that the mental health trust had failed to provide basic care for Natasha, which contributed to her death. No fault was found with the university or Natasha’s GP.
Natasha’s parents, who had collated over 2000 pages of evidence, believe this was because the coroner had restricted the investigation to the month prior to Natasha’s death.
After the end of the inquest, they announced plans to take legal action against the university – bringing their legal bills to an expected £75,000.
“Why am I angry? I’m angry because we were prevented from getting at the truth. More should have been done to examine, scrutinise, inspect what was going on at the university, and we were prevented from doing that.” Bob said.
“We will never stop working to ensure that other students don’t endure the suffering she did.”
In a statement, the university said: “The University’s response to media questions about the death of a student will always be guided by our commitment to respect the dignity of our student and our desire to protect the privacy and wishes of the student’s family and friends, and our University colleagues. We also ensure that any communications we issue prior to and during an inquest comply with the legal processes surrounding it.
“We are, however, deeply concerned at the inaccuracies currently playing out in the media and how these may be impacting on the wellbeing of many in our community – both our students and staff.
“Staff in the School, along with colleagues from Student Services, worked incredibly hard and diligently to help and support Natasha with her studies and her mental health needs. They are understandably very distressed not only about the tragic loss of a student but about the often-inaccurate reporting of their actions.
“The School’s Student Administration Manager spoke and met with Natasha on many occasions to offer support and advice, and to help her find appropriate professional support. On one occasion she went to Natasha’s flat and personally took her to the Student Health Service to see a GP for an emergency appointment.
“After a referral from her GP in February 2018 Natasha was under the care of specialist mental health professionals and she continued to receive support and advice from staff in the School of Physics. This included discussing options to alleviate the anxiety she faced about presenting her laboratory findings to her peers as part of an assessed laboratory conference (such as not taking to the stage, letting others present, and not having to answer any subsequent questions).
“Despite allegations to the contrary, the efforts of colleagues included offering mitigating options for Natasha’s assessments. Natasha and the School’s Student Administration Manager discussed these options on the Friday before a presentation that Natasha was fearful of giving on the following Monday was due to take place. She was reassured that she didn’t have to go ahead and could change her mind on the day of the presentation. These options were supported by the senior tutor and the academic leading the Monday session. Natasha told the Student Administration Manager she wanted to go ahead and understood that any or all those measures could be implemented on the day of the presentation if she requested it. Tragically, Natasha did not attend on that Monday.
“Every student contributes in no small measure to the community we create together at Bristol, and the loss of any student is profoundly sad.
“We would like to acknowledge and thank all our staff for their ongoing commitment to learning from and improving the way in which we support our students. This commitment is clearly reflected in our Student Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy, which was launched earlier this year, including the new opt-in system which allows us to reach out to nominated contacts if we feel a student is at significant risk.
“After considering all of the oral and documentary evidence the Coroner found no fault on the part of the University. We are pleased that this recognises the efforts of our committed staff to support Natasha, but we are by no means complacent about the scale of the issue in relation to student mental health. It is one of the biggest public health issues affecting young people globally – not just those studying at University.
“Everyone at the University is deeply affected by a student death and committed to doing all that we can to keep our students safe.”
You can watch the documentary on BBC iPlayer here.
Help is there if you need it. Contact your university’s services, or Samaritans on 116 123, 24 hours a day. You can also email them on email@example.com