Natasha Abrahart’s parents: Bristol Uni ‘destroyed her and haven’t even said they’re sorry’
‘How can they sleep at night?’
Bob and Margaret are the parents of Natasha Abrahart: a 20-year-old physics student who tragically took her own life in April 2018. They’ve just successfully sued the University of Bristol, with the judge finding that the institution discriminated against their daughter, leading to her untimely death. But instead of accepting this judgement, the university praised the support Natasha received from staff in the months prior to her passing, and is now considering launching an appeal.
“The bit that really bugs me,” Bob told The Tab. “The bit that hurts, is that they haven’t even said they’re sorry. They put Natasha through six months of hell. They destroyed her. She was a fighter and she would have kept going and look what happened! They don’t even have the humanity to actually own up and say ‘we’re really sorry for what we did to her’. How can they sleep at night?”
‘We’re so angry at the way we were treated by the uni’
Natasha Abrahart had chronic Social Anxiety Disorder. While she had a tight-knit group of mates and a loving boyfriend, she struggled speaking to people she didn’t know very well. Her parents recall how friends would speak on her behalf in class when she was asked a question. And to some extent this was a functional coping mechanism.
But in April 2018, she was due to give an assessed presentation in a lecture theatre in front of 40 classmates. This was too much for Natasha, who was found dead in her flat later that day.
After an inquest revealed the cause of death to be suicide, her parents were spurred into action. “The decision to take them to court was made at the end of the inquest,” Bob said. “We were so angry at the way things had gone on, the way we were treated by the university. There was no way we weren’t going to court. We knew we had a strong case.”
Bob was right. Last week, a court found the university did not make reasonable adjustments to Natasha’s assessment in light of her anxiety and therefore discriminated against her under the Equality Act, ultimately leading to her death. The Abraharts were awarded £50,518 in damages, but the University of Bristol is now considering appealing the decision.
‘Four years on, what changes have been made?’
Bob and Margaret say they had discovered what the uni had done wrong in the months before Natasha’s death, which is why they find it all the more frustrating that instead of implementing proper changes, the uni has spent time and money fighting them in court. Margaret said: “The more you delay, the more students are suffering. Students are opting out of university now. Students are ending their life now.
“We had sufficient information three and a half years ago to make changes. By the end of the inquest we were pretty sure we had a case. Four years on what changes have been made? Well, if they haven’t acknowledged the problem, I don’t see what changes could have been made.”
She adds: “There’s been this belief that universities are doing the right thing and doing as much as they can, but in my view they’ve never really gone back and looked in sufficient detail at what happens when things go wrong which they need to do because those are the things that can be fixed. And they can be fixed quite simply. If they really don’t have the resources to help people, phone the parents!”
‘Instead of investing in the sticky plaster to put it right, what they need to do is stop causing the problem in the first place’
Natasha’s parents aren’t sitting on their hands waiting for the University of Bristol to announce if it’s going to appeal the decision and, in Bob’s words, “kick the can down the road for another two years.”
They’ve joined forces with a group of bereaved parents and family members, calling themselves The LEARN Network and campaigning for change. Together they believe that the university sector’s efforts to combat the “student mental health crisis,” are being focussed in the wrong areas.
Hiring more wellbeing advisors will “get the press off their backs,” but for Natasha’s parents, they think the problem needs to be tackled at source. The LEARN Network believe that improving internal processes and information sharing within the university could save lives.
“Instead of investing in the sticky plaster to put it right, what they need to do is stop causing the problem in the first place,” Margaret told The Tab. Bob adds: “We want to be consulted and fight for change.”
Following the case’s conclusion last week, a University of Bristol spokesperson said: “Our whole university community has been deeply affected by Natasha’s tragic death and we would once again like to extend our sympathies to her friends and family.
“We believe staff in the School of Physics worked incredibly hard and diligently to support Natasha during her time with us, and it was due to their efforts that she was receiving specialist mental health support from the NHS.
“Our staff’s efforts also included offering alternative options for Natasha’s assessments to alleviate the anxiety she faced about presenting her laboratory findings to her peers. We are very grateful to them for their endeavours on Natasha’s behalf and for their unwavering commitment to our students.
“We cannot replicate the NHS but are committed to working with the NHS and other partners to improve services and ensure we are collectively providing the best possible support for students.
“Given the significant impact this decision could have on how all higher education providers support their students, we are reviewing the decision carefully, including whether to appeal. In light of that review, it would not be appropriate to comment further on the judgment at the present time.”
Bob Abrahart told The Tab: “That statement trivialises Natasha’s death.”
Addressing Bob’s claim, a spokesperson for the University of Bristol said: “We apologise that our previous media statement was felt to trivialise Natasha’s death and we continue to express our deepest sympathies to her parents. We do not in any way underestimate the impact of Natasha’s death on her family and friends.
“We are considering an appeal as the wider implications of the judgement could have significant ramifications for the whole higher education sector, particularly in relation to how we assess the work and learning outcomes of students with an undisclosed or undiagnosed disability. The judgement calls into question how universities can best support these students through making necessary mitigations while ensuring the academic integrity of degrees is maintained.”
If you or someone you know has been affected by this story, please speak to someone or contact Samaritans on 116 123 at any time. You can contact Anxiety UK on 03444 775 774, Mind on 0300 123 3393, and Calm (Campaign against living miserably, for men aged 15 to 35) on 0800 58 58 58. You matter.
A list of wellbeing services available to Bristol students can be found here.
Featured image credit: SWNS