Parents of deceased Bristol students speak out in national media calling for university reform

It follows significant press coverage of the issue


The parents of two former Bristol University students have spoken out in the past week about the ways in which they feel UoB could improve its support for those at risk.

The Tab Bristol has a policy of declining to name deceased students out of respect to their friends and family. However, in the last few days the parents of James O'Shea and Ben Murray have come forward to voice their concerns in national newspapers that they were not adequately informed about the vulnerable state of their sons.

Both James O'Shea and Ben Murray are believed to have taken their own lives this year, in January and May respectively. O'Shea had graduated from Bristol in 2017 and was studying a PhD at Cambridge whilst Murray was in first year. At least ten Bristol University students are believed to have taken their lives since September 2016 with two further student deaths at the nearby University of the West of England.

In an interview with The Times on Monday, the mother of James O'Shea, Kate, said: "It was what Bristol did to him that basically killed him. It was not Cambridge. He is one of the Bristol suicides." Mrs O'Shea said during his fourth year, James was "traumatised" when coming home, explaining that her son did not seek help at Bristol because "he was so scared of being sectioned so he was frightened to let people know how bad he was".

Mrs O'Shea told The Times she did not blame Bristol for specific failings, but said "it is the pressure of university life and the pressure of Bristol particularly." Regarding her son's telephone calls in his final year at Bristol, Mrs O'Shea said: "I felt totally helpless because he would unload on me and I would say why don't you talk to so-and-so, and he did not want to do that. I knew it would be a severe breach of trust if I phoned up the university. You could see your child being destroyed in front of you but the modern system stops you from doing anything."

Meanwhile Ben Murray's father, James, wrote an article in The Sunday Times, setting out a plan for Vice-Chancellors that centred on changing data protection rules to make it universities to share information on their children's wellbeing. Last month Bristol University announced it was planning to introduce an opt-in for students to allow the University to contact their next of kin in certain cases.

Other suggested changes include more accountability and resources for personal tutors, mandated 'face-to-face' meetings and "halls and 'housemaster'-type accountability", in which "all members of staff… think about the mental health issues of those with whom they come into contact." In October 2017 Vice Chancellor Professor Hugh Brady signed the 'Time for Change' pledge to ensure "everyone at the University of Bristol who may be facing mental health difficulties feels supported."

The ability of universities to share the confidential information of students with their parents is constricted under the Data Protection Act. In an interview accompanying his article, James Murray said his son had told the university months earlier he was suffering from anxiety, and had been directed towards support but no one had told his family. "There were so many times when we could have intervened if we had known. There is no such thing as a 19-year-old adult in a major life crisis", Mr Murray said.

"When Ben told the university of his anxiety, it should have triggered a referral to the wellbeing support team. Ben's friends gave him the right advice: 'tell your parents'. We wish the university had had the legal authority to do that for him." Mr Murray spoke today at the Festival of Higher Education on the mental health crisis facing British universities, having appeared on Radio 4 on Tuesday alongside Hugh Brady.

With regards to the comments of Mrs O’Shea, the University of Bristol said that "All at the university extend our deepest sympathy to James’s family. We are very sorry to hear they felt James found it hard to find a balance in managing his approach to his studies. We have reached out to them to discuss their concerns. Student mental health is the single biggest challenge the higher education sector faces. We are taking every step we can to ensure our community is as safe and supportive as we can make it."

Commenting on Mr Murray’s article, the University of Bristol said that "Our vice-chancellor has met Ben’s father; we are actively working with him and other parents as part of plans to create services that prevent our students from reaching crisis point. This includes an ‘opt-in’ contract with them enabling contact with nominated next of kin if we have concerns about their wellbeing."

If you are experiencing mental health problems and wish to get help, a list of all the Bristol services open to students can be found here.

Samaritans have an invaluable helpline- 116 123- that is open 24/7. Their website can be found here. Nightline can also be contacted on 01179 266 266.