Harry took his own life after he failed his exams. Why didn’t Exeter Uni do anything?
Two years after Harry’s death, his parents want answers. This is Harry’s story
On the day Harry Armstrong Evans died, his mum and their pet cat woke him up at about 9am with a cup of tea. It was the 24th June 2021, and the final year Exeter student had deferred his summer exams until August.
Harry was 21 years old when he took his own life. He was in his final year studying physics and astrophysics, and was also planning on going onto study for a Master’s in data science at Exeter.
Just a few years before, Harry had been happy to be going to Exeter University, and was looking forward to leaving school and becoming more independent. He’d had good offers in similar subjects from unis like Bristol and Bath, but he and his family chose Exeter as it has a nice campus and is close to their family home in Cornwall, so it was easy to keep in contact. “Of course, we had absolutely no idea that Covid would come along”, his father Rupert tells The Tab.
It’s been almost two years since Harry’s death when I speak to his parents – Alice, who works in marine construction, and Rupert, a hydro-engineer – on a Zoom call, from their front room in their family home in Cornwall. Their cat Berlioz, named after one of the Aristocats in the Disney film, curls up on the sofa in the background.
Speaking about Exeter, Harry’s mother Alice says “you can’t really say it’s not a nice place”, it’s a “nice university, full of nice people”. But they felt Harry’s department, the physics department, were “a bit distant”.
Harry had a happy childhood, growing up with his three siblings in Cornwall, and enjoyed school where he made good friends. “He was always a very bright, perceptive little human being”, says Alice. “Always cheerful and loved music.”
Rupert describes Harry as “such a sweet boy” and “the kindest person”, who was quiet but “then he would come out with very funny remarks. He had a very sort of dry, sardonic sense of humour.”
Harry’s parents say he never argued with his siblings but instead was the one they would all go to for advice. He loved rowing and had twice been to the British Olympic training centre in Portugal, he was part of Exeter’s gaming society, was an excellent chess plater, and loved Cadbury’s milk chocolate.
It was halfway through his final year at Exeter when things really took a turn for Harry. He was a diligent student who had never missed a lecture and was on track for a First or a 2:1, until a set of “disastrous” exam results in January 2021, during lockdown – suddenly getting “really low marks, including a zero” in an online exam he’d struggled with how to upload. “He never took another exam after that”, Alice says.
Harry chose to defer retakes of his January exams, as well as his May ones, until August later that year – meaning he’d be sitting a total of six exams at once. At the inquest into Harry’s death, academic witnesses “indicated this was a huge amount of work for a difficult subject”, according to the coroner’s report.
“I cannot believe the callousness of Exeter University”, Alice says, saying she “cannot forgive” them.
“He asked his tutor whether he could resit those exams and at that point the tutor said ‘well you could do, but you’ll be capped at 40 per cent’, even with the paper he hadn’t uploaded properly. And I think Harry took that really badly, there was no leniency towards Harry at all.”
Harry reached out to Exeter University in a “cry for help” just weeks before taking his own life, the inquest into his death heard last year, detailing how the pandemic was having an “adverse affect on [his] mental health”.
In an email to his personal tutor and the welfare department, he spoke about feeling isolated during lockdown and the pressure of his upcoming exams. The uni’s welfare emailed Harry inviting him to fill out an online form for a phone appointment, but “there was no attempt to contact Harry by phone or in person by anyone at Exeter University”, the coroner said.
“If somebody’s feeling down, the very last thing you want to do is fill out a great computer-based form”, Rupert says. “You just want to have a chat with someone you know, have a cup of coffee with them.”
Alice also emailed Harry’s tutor out of concern. This was forwarded onto the uni’s welfare services, who said information cannot be shared with parents without a student’s consent. However, both Harry’s parents and the coroner have criticised the university for not attempting to speak to Harry to obtain such consent. Alice herself also contacted the university’s welfare department. “I totally trusted Exeter University to get in touch with my son”, she says, but “nothing happened”.
“Harry, from being a really great student, suddenly got really low marks in his January exams, including a zero, and not one person, either his tutor or head of department or the wellbeing department, picked up on this and thought it was worth investigating. So what are they being paid for?”
At the inquest it was revealed two phone call logs from Alice to Exeter’s welfare department, in which she raised concerns over her son’s mental health, had accidentally been deleted. (Exeter told the hearing it has since requested a new system for wellbeing to stop this mistake from being repeated, and said it will “make sure we learn the lessons […] specifically in the areas recommended by the coroner”.)
At the end of term, Alice and Rupert drove to Exeter to take Harry home. “When I did see him, he’d definitely lost a lot of weight”, Alice says. “He was obviously under a considerable amount of stress.” The first thing they did was take him out to lunch. They went to Mill on the Exe, a pub by the river in Exeter, and then they brought him home. “And we really tried to sort him out”, Alice says.
“But we had no idea as to the scale of the problem”, Rupert says. “He couldn’t bring himself to tell us how badly he’d done, because he’d never done badly in his life in anything before”, Alice says. “And he just couldn’t handle it.”
Harry’s parents noticed he wasn’t revising for his upcoming deferred exams, and they were encouraging him to revise without putting any pressure on him. “I was completely concerned about him. I was feeding him up, he was eating food and just hanging out with us really,” Alice says, recalling the “lovely summer weather” of the time, when they would sit in the garden and watch the birds.
Harry was only at home for a week before he took his own life. On the day he died, Alice mum woke him up at about 9am with a cup of tea. She took their family cat Berlioz, who Harry loved, up to his room. That was the day Alice and Rupert, and their whole family’s, lives had changed forever. “After Harry didn’t come home any more, our cat has spent loads of time in his bedroom, and misses Harry like mad, because the cat adored Harry”, Alice says.
“When he was home, the cat was on Harry’s lap and purring away all happy, and after Harry died that cat really definitely missed him. So it just goes to show it’s not just other human beings that miss him, it’s pets as well. We just keep on wishing that he hadn’t done it.”
It was 16 gruelling months until the inquest into Harry’s death. The coroner criticised Exeter, concluding Harry’s death was due to a “mental health crisis” which was “preceded by a catalogue of missed opportunities along with system failures” that failed to support him. “The safety net did not operate to safeguard Harry”, the coroner said at the inquest.
Alice says Exeter University “has not made contact with us”. “If Harry had mattered to them, they would have tried to work out what was wrong”, she says.
“I know that if he’d been a professor and one of his students got a zero, he would have fought tooth and nail to get that 40 per cent cap removed, because that’s the sort of person Harry was. He was a just and a decent human being and he would have helped someone in that situation.”
Rupert says Harry’s death has changed everything. “A lot of what people say about ‘time heals’, it doesn’t.
“You can’t push it away. You’ve got to look at it. Life is different. One has all sorts of aspirations as to what one’s children will end up doing and trying to sort of help them along the way, and when you lose … it makes everything else look, I don’t want to say pointless, but it just changes everything. One treasures one’s other children, but it’s completely changed everything. Every day [you] wake up with it. And I can say that it’s every hour of every day that I think about it.”
“Life without Harry is really not life any more”, Alice says. “It’s a hole, it’s a big gap”, Rupert says.
He says their focus now is to raise awareness of suicide and make sure other families don’t go through the same. “So the only thing we can do is just to try and make sure this is so unlikely, that suicides and attempted suicides are an incredible rarity. It shouldn’t happen.
“For every person who dies, there is a huge number of members of family and friends who are just totally devastated and changed because of it.”
Now, Alice and Rupert are campaigning for Harry’s Law, named after their beloved son, which is calling on all universities to record or publish their student suicide rates. You can find their full petition and how to sign it here.
This is something students have been waiting for. 88 per cent of students wish their university was more transparent about the amount of student suicides that happen, in figures obtained by The Tab as part of our 2022/23 Mental Health Survey.
Alice and Rupert believe prospective students and their parents should be able to see suicide rates as part of the decision-making process when choosing a university. “The system is failing”, Rupert says. Alice believes that if universities were more transparent about suicides, “proper studies could be done” to highlight potentially at-risk students and help them.
“We feel it really would save lives”, Alice says. “Just talking about it, just universities being open about it. […] It’s a needless loss and it should not happen. I’m sure that more openness and transparency would really reduce numbers. How could it not?”
Rupert and Alice think student wellbeing is “not the highest priority” for universities, but instead they prioritise money and their institution’s reputation.
Following Harry’s death, it’s been revealed at least 11 Exeter students are believed to have died by suicide in just six years. Among them is Joel Rees, who studied on the same course as Harry – physics and astrophysics – and died in June 2017, the year before Harry started at Exeter. Joel’s father David has previously said Joel was worried about his exams and felt he didn’t have enough time to study alongside his job.
Finding out about this is what inspired Rupert and Alice to begin campaigning for Harry’s Law. “If we had known that a young man had taken his life on the same course as Harry the year before he started, we would have definitely spoken to Harry about suicide. […] We would have talked about it, and I know that this would not have happened”, Alice says. She thinks that before going to university, all parents should speak to their children about student suicide.
“All I can want now is for no other families to go through what we’ve gone through.”
You can find out more about Harry’s Law here and sign the petition here. At 10,000 signatures the government will respond, and at 100,000 the petition will be considered for a parliament debate. The deadline to sign the petition is 8th May 2023.
A spokesperson for the University of Exeter said: “We are deeply saddened by Harry’s death and his family’s loss. We are grateful for the Coroner’s careful consideration of the circumstances of, and issues arising from, this tragedy. We addressed in detail the concerns that were raised in the Coroner’s letter, setting out the ways in which we are responding to each of these.
“We are acutely aware of the current mental health challenges for young people. We have invested significantly in student welfare and wellbeing support in recent years and will continue to do so.
“Following the Coroner’s Inquest, we have undertaken a detailed review of the many ways in which we support student mental health and wellbeing, and we have introduced further enhancements across our University community.
“These include developing additional structured training provision for staff, and investing in further out-of-hours support to ensure there is additional capacity within our trained team, who can proactively support students at their time of need. The team can be accessed directly by students, or by others who may be concerned for a student’s wellbeing.
“We are also working with key external partners in order to ensure the best possible support to our students. Further work is taking place to agree data sharing policies with relevant key statutory organisations including GPs, NHS mental health care teams and the police. We are updating our policies, ensuring that the considered use of the ‘trusted contact’ is part of our support provision.
“We have undertaken a robust review of our Case Management System, which has seen additional mitigation measures installed, including a ‘welfare tracker’ to track case progress. We are also investing in an enhanced system this year.
“We have welcomed and support the recent Universities UK guidance on suicide prevention, and we had already introduced a significant number of the recommendations prior to the outcome of the Inquest into Harry’s death. We will continue to engage with best practice in student mental health and wellbeing, which will remain our highest priority, and we will work with sector bodies and external partners to ensure our support is continually enhanced. ”
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 also contact Anxiety UK on 03444 775 774, Mind on 0300 123 3393, Calm (Campaign against living miserably) on 0800 58 58 58, and Student Minds online here. You matter.
The Tab’s You Matter campaign is dedicated to highlighting the student mental health crisis. If you’ve got a story you’d like to tell us – whether it’s difficulties with getting uni support, or anything you think we should hear, get in touch in confidence by emailing [email protected]
• Introducing Harry’s Law: The petition fighting to change how universities deal with suicide
• Exeter University ‘failed to support’ student who took his own life, inquest finds
• At least 11 Exeter students have reportedly died by suicide in just the past six years