Exeter University ‘failed to support’ student who took his own life, inquest finds

Astrophysics student Harry Armstrong Evans died in June 2021

An inquest has concluded that Exeter University failed to support Harry Armstrong Evans, 21, after he took his own life at his family home in Cornwall in June 2021, following a “mental health crisis”.

His death has been concluded as a suicide by the coroner.

Harry was in his third year, studying physics and astrophysics at Exeter. Harry reached out to the university in a “cry for help” just weeks before taking his own life. The coroner criticised the university for failing to respond effectively.

Harry had reached out in an email to the university, but there was no contact in-person or by phone, only an email response. The university has been criticised for their potential “over-reliance” on email forms.

In the email, Harry outlined how the pandemic was impacting his mental health; with “no human contact” he was feeling increasingly isolated, aware that it was having an “adverse affect on my mental health”. On top of this, he was concerned about his academic performance and financial issues.

The coroner said: “Harry’s death was due to an acute mental health crisis which was preceded by a catalogue of missed opportunities along with system failures which together led to a an absence of proactive results which meant Harry could not receive support.”

He raised questions over whether wellbeing’s case management was “fit for purpose”. It was revealed that two phone call logs from Harry’s mother had accidentally been deleted, in which she raised her concerns over his mental health. The university told the hearing that they have since requested a new system for wellbeing to stop this mistake from being repeated.

The coroner concluded by saying: “The safety net did not operate to safeguard Harry. Concerns were raised on a number of occasions by both Harry and his parents.

“My central finding will be that the welfare service did not proactively respond to those concerns and did not provide the necessary support for Harry. Specifically, there was no engagement with Harry’s family.”

The university’s registrar Mike Shore-Nye responded by saying that: “We will consider the coroner’s detailed conclusions in the case and make sure we learn the lessons to enhance our support and operations further, specifically in the areas recommended by the coroner.”

There were five main areas of concern: training for academic staff around suicide prevention, the wellbeing’s management system, the university’s suicide prevention response, the protocol and staff awareness for when they contact parents or family, and whether pastoral tutors should give their mobile numbers to students.

Shore-Nye also said the university “had invested significantly in student welfare and wellbeing support in recent years…including a bespoke partnership with local NHS and support services for students with complex mental health needs, depression and anxiety, with student support services being available seven days a week, including throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.”

He stressed: “During the pandemic, all students were supported with a no disadvantage guarantee to ensure their assessment marks didn’t suffer as a result of the difficult circumstances surrounding the pandemic. And we continue to take a compassionate and supportive approach.”

Harry’s parents are campaigning for “Harry’s law”, wherein universities would have to publish their annual rates of student death by suicide. They want the Department for Education to be able to investigate universities, and place them in special measures if they have a suicide rate exceeding the national average.

At least 11 Exeter students have reportedly died by suicide in the last six years.

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, and Calm (Campaign against living miserably) on 0800 58 58 58. 

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].

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