York student died by suicide after incorrectly thinking he had stage four bowel cancer

Charles Johnson took his own life just days after moving into his accommodation

A University of York student died by suicide after he wrongly believed he had advanced cancer.

Charles Henry Johnson was found in Philip Brockbank Court accommodation last September.

An inquest on Monday heard how the 18-year-old believed he had bowel cancer that had spread to his brain and chest and that he had decided to take his own life, rather than suffer, York Press reports.

Alison Norton, assistant coroner for York and North Yorkshire, said that notes found near Charles’ body and a blog revealed how believed he had bowel cancer. Charles believed that this had spread to his brain and chest and that it was incurable, consequently deciding to take his own life instead of suffering.

Alison explained how a post mortem certified that Mr Johnson’s internal organs were healthy.

She said: “The decision had been made before he had left home for the university and that he would do so once at the university.”

Mr Johnson’s father, James, provided evidence for the inquest that his son had grown up on a farm in Spalding, south Lincolnshire, and had been “happy to start university”.

Charles had gained three As at A-level in maths, physics and computer science, above his ABB university place offer, and an A-level in further maths. He accepted a place at the University of York to study computer science.

Charles’ father James Johnson issued a statement to the inquest which said: “He was an excellent student, very intelligent, he knew everything about technology.”

Before going to university, his son had been doing work experience writing software and had been planning a career as a computer engineer.

The inquest at Northallerton Coroner’s Court heard that Charles Johnson arrived at university on September 16th. He last spoke to other students when they knocked on his door on September 17th or September 18th and he declined an invitation to go for some drinks, saying he was still unpacking. James contacted the university on September 20th after losing contact with his son and after he had become concerned about him.

University safety officer, Trevor Oakley, in written evidence, said Charles’ room was locked, but he and a colleague gained entrance at 11.15am and found his body, along with papers with the notes and blog details.

Charles’ cause of death was ruled suffocation. His body showed increased ketone levels, possibly due to fasting which may have caused changes to his mental state prior to death. But the pathologist couldn’t say whether it did, or how much it may have affected events.

In notes found in his room at the university, Charles wrote that he was not depressed. He had however stated that he started to feel physically unwell about two years earlier. He believed he was suffering from stage four bowel cancer that had spread to his chest and brain. According to his self-diagnosis it “wasn’t survivable”.

A Yorkshire Ambulance Service paramedic declared Charles Johnson dead at 11.51 am.

Police officers gave evidence that Charles’ luggage didn’t appear to have been unpacked, there were no signs of a struggle, the window was closed and there was no evidence anyone other than Charles Johnson had been there. They concluded the death was not suspicious.

Histopathologist consultant Matthew Toy, who carried out the post mortem, said there were no traces of alcohol or prescription or illegal drugs in Charles’ body.

Dr Naseer Khan, Charles Johnson’s GP in Spalding, gave evidence that the son had been referred to local mental health support services for young people in September 2021 and advised to reduce his time in front of a computer screen. In October 2021, James told the surgery the son was feeling “much better”. The surgery’s doctors had not seen Charles regarding his mental health since.

James Johnson told the coroner’s officer he thought his son may be autistic, but had not been diagnosed with the condition.

A University of York spokesperson said: “We were deeply saddened by the death of Charles and our thoughts are with his family and friends. Any students affected by his death can reach out for support through their college teams or the university’s open door team.”

If are a student at the University of York and feel you have been affected by any of the issues discussed, you can find support here.

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