Natasha Abrahart’s anxiety diagnosis should be taken with a ‘pinch of salt,’ professor says

University of Bristol set to pay £50k after court rules that discrimination by the uni led to the suicide of Natasha Abrahart

According to a University of Bristol representative in the Natasha Abrahart case, the evidence used to diagnose the former students anxiety should be taken with a “pinch of salt”.

Professor Tom Burns spoke for the defendant (University of Bristol) and told the judge: he saw social anxiety disorder as a “controversial diagnosis” and he disagreed with the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence’s guidance. Professor Burns said he had not diagnosed social anxiety disorder in a patient for “at least 10 years”.

The trial took place at the Bristol County Court. Dr Sally Braithwaite spoke for the Abrahart family and she, alongside Burns, gave medical evidence to discern whether Natasha suffered with social anxiety disorder. It was during these hearings that Professor Burns beliefs came to light.

Senior Judge Alex Ralton, who ruled over the case, dismissed the university representative’s comments due to how Professor Burn’s views seemed to generally differ with those of other practitioners and because of the inconsistency with his position.

Initially the Professor held to a view that he did not know what caused Natasha’s depression but he then accepted that fear of challenging situations made Natasha depressed; he acknowledged that there had been an exacerbation and he agreed that fear played into Natasha’s suicide

The parents of Natasha recently sued the University of Bristol under the Equality Act. The 20-year-old physics undergraduate, who suffered from severe social anxiety, took her own life in 2018. The suicide occurred a day before she was due to give a presentation in front of 40 people.

The judge ruled the university will have to pay £50,158 in damages to Abrahart’s parents, a verdict the university is considering an appeal for. Judge Alex Ralton stated in the judgement issued that the institution had indeed discriminated against Natasha, failing to make adequate adjustments to the way it assessed her. The University of Bristol was found liable for “multiple breaches” in the legal duties it owed to vulnerable student Natasha Abrahart.

Ralton said: “There can be no doubt that there was direct discrimination, especially once the university knew or should have known that a mental health disability of some sort was preventing Natasha from performing.”

Natasha’s social anxiety disorder diagnosis was the reason she was classed as disabled and the basis for why the judge ruled in the Abrahart’s favour, as it proved that the uni had discriminated against her by not providing reasonable adjustments and breaching the equality act.

Dr Braithwaite diagnosed Natasha with social anxiety disorder, starting in October 2016 and becoming clinically significant in October 2017. The University of Bristol disagreed with this diagnosis.


In the landmark case, trial documents also shed light on how Natasha’s previous suicide attempt, although mentioned to the university through an email written by Abrahart’s friend Mr Palan, was not made aware to senior members of the Student Well-being and Physics department.

The judge said: “Accordingly it seems that much more would have been done to engage with Natasha, her disability and the adjustments she needed if the service (and the academics) had been told of Natasha’s suicide attempts and self-harm.”

A spokesperson for the University of Bristol said: “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.”

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.

Related stories recommended by this writer:

• Natasha Abrahart’s parents launch legal case against Bristol Uni over daughter’s suicide

• Bristol Uni failed to make reasonable adjustments for Natasha Abrahart, court told

• Discrimination by the University of Bristol led to the suicide of a vulnerable student