student suicide

‘Too little too late’: Parents of students who have died by suicide criticise government plan

‘They’re just waiting for the bodies to stack up before they fix anything’

In 2018, Natasha Abrahart, a 20-year-old physics student at The University of Bristol tragically took her own life. A court found that disability discrimination by the University of Bristol led to her suicide and the university was ordered to pay £50,518 in damages.

Natasha’s parents, Bob and Margaret, then formed a campaign group alongside other parents who had lost their children to suicide called ForThe100, representing families bereaved by suicide at university – currently around 100 every year. They are fighting for a statutory duty of care in universities for students.

Yesterday, ForThe100 released a report criticising the government’s plans to tackle the problem of student suicide at UK universities. The report outlined several key issues with the government’s plans. It was signed by fifteen bereaved families of students who have died by suicide at UK universities in the last decade.

Speaking to The Tab about the report, Bob Abrahart said: “They’re just waiting for the bodies to stack up before they fix anything” and criticised the Department of Education for being “biased”, “inconclusive” and “too little too late”.

‘They actually want people to die’

The main problem Bob outlined with the government’s plans to tackle student suicide is a refusal to look at past cases. The government’s plans to create a report on student suicides only include incidents from the 2023/24 academic year, not taking past incidents into account. This, Bob said, means they will be “waiting until people die so they can collect some information and try and fix the problem.”

He said there is no mechanism in place to do what they want to do. “And what they’re proposing is too little too late. They actually want people to die so they can collect some information and decide what needs fixing.”

“It’s going to need a lot of people to die in order to fix the system.”

‘It’s almost as if we’ve been silenced’

ForThe100 as a campaign group has fought tirelessly for universities to have a legal duty of care for their students. 25 bereaved families set up a petition which closed with 128,292 signatures and was debated in parliament to no avail in June this year.

Despite this, Bob said: “The government’s proposals have ignored everything that we provided”. He told The Tab: “It’s been brushed aside and it’s almost as if we’ve been silenced.”

“They came up with this as a way of showing they’re doing the right thing but it won’t really change anything, the situation just continued. It’s like everything we did on the petition and the debate just doesn’t matter. It’s been brushed aside and it’s almost as if we’ve been silenced.”

“But it feels like someone’s trying to silence us rather than deal with the problem.”

Insensitive language

Some of the language used in the government’s plans was also flagged as insensitive in the report. One part of the plan outlines the government’s plan “to work with the selected provider to identify any developments to the existing template for higher education providers when reviewing a suspected suicide or near-miss.”

ForThe100 said they consider the terminology “near-miss” in regards to student suicide as an insensitive choice of words. Bob described it as “rude” and said if they are really looking at these “near miss” cases of student suicide “I think the problem is going to skyrocket. I don’t think they can actually do that in terms of numbers, it’s massive.”

Conflict of interest

The report also showed concern for the huge conflict of interest for universities dealing with the problem of student suicide. The report says: “It is a common experience of many bereaved families that major organisations, including higher education providers, will default to denial when confronted with allegations of any wrongdoing.”

“It’s load of people who are covering their backs,” Bob said.

When Natasha Abraharts’ parents Bob and Margaret took The University of Bristol to court, the judge ruled that the university 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.

'Too little too late': Parents of students who have died by suicide criticise government plan

Margaret, Bob and Natasha Abrahart

“There are people dying. I accept you can’t save everyone but if you can save 50 or 60 people then they should be doing it,” he told The Tab.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education said: “It is vital that higher education institutions learn lessons when a student takes their own life. That is why we have worked with bereaved families to develop this review and are commissioning an independent organisation to conduct it and share these lessons across the sector, to help prevent future tragedies.

“We are also calling on all universities to sign up to the Mental Health Charter Programme to ensure that they are taking a whole-university approach to mental health and have set up the Higher Education Mental Health Implementation Taskforce to make a plan for driving further improvements in student mental health support.”

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.

Featured images via SWNS. 

Related stories recommended by this writer:

Natasha Abrahart’s parents: Bristol Uni ‘destroyed her and haven’t even said they’re sorry’

Natasha Abrahart’s parents are fighting to rewrite the rules on student mental health

‘It’s not against the Abrahart family’: Bristol Uni takes suicide ruling to High Court