A leading university, which has seen at least 11 students die in suspected suicides in two years, could see its pastoral care scrutinised in court for the first time.
The University of Bristol has been hit by claims from some bereaved relatives that it failed to properly care for students. Now, the parents of a second-year student who died suddenly in April will appeal to a coroner to raise questions over the university’s actions.
The parents of Natasha Abrahart, who died aged 20, are expected to argue through lawyers on Wednesday that the inquiry into her death should consider whether there was a “multi-agency failure” which may have breached the Human Rights Act.
Lawyers acting for the parents declined to confirm the exact legal arguments ahead of the hearing.
Natasha’s parents, Robert, a former academic at the University of Nottingham, and Margaret, who has worked as a mental health practitioner in the NHS, said: “Over the last two months we have conducted our own in-depth analysis of available material. This has provided a better understanding of what transpired; however, we still have a lot of questions and concerns, which we hope will be addressed by the inquest.
“For the benefit of university students across the country, we want to ensure that any lessons which can be learned from Natasha’s death are identified and acted upon.”
Previous inquests have not found a link between the deaths, and some conclusions have supported Bristol’s claim that it has adequate systems in place to help students with mental health issues.
The Abraharts have sought advice from the charity INQUEST and have engaged a barrister to put their case forward during a pre-inquest review hearing at Avon Coroner’s Court near Bristol on Wednesday.
It is understood that the role of other organisations, including the NHS, will also form part of their application.
Wednesday’s hearing could seek to determine whether the circumstances of Natasha’s death potentially beached Article 2 of the Human Rights Act – which protects the “right to life” – thus requiring an enhanced investigation by the coroner.
The final decision will be taken by Senior Coroner for Avon, Maria Voisin.
The University of Bristol has suggested its pastoral care system may have previously lacked round-the-clock support across the whole institution.
“I don’t think we can stand by a system where there isn’t 24/7 support by people specifically trained on these issues,” its vice-chancellor, Hugh Brady, said in May.
The university announced last October an extra £1 million a year for enhanced welfare support for students, including more dedicated mental health staff.
In the statement, the family’s lawyer, Gus Silverman, an expert public law and human rights lawyer at Irwin Mitchell, said: “The number of recent deaths amongst students at the University of Bristol has been a matter of considerable, and understandable, public concern.
“Natasha’s family now look forward to a full and fearless investigation of the circumstances surrounding her death.”
A University of Bristol spokesperson said: “We offer our sincere sympathies to Natasha’s family following her tragic death and will co-operate fully with the Coroner to ensure any lessons learnt are built into the support we provide our students.
“Mental health and wellbeing is fast emerging as the single biggest public health issue affecting young people today, both here in the UK and globally. We are taking every step we can, to work with our students to help them build the life-skills and resilience to cope with the pressures they face, and to identify vulnerable students as early as possible so we can support them with their mental health issues.
“Our whole-institution approach will help us reach out to our students more proactively. We are putting in place a structure of preventative services and policies to try and avoid our students reaching crisis point.
“Mental health leads from the NHS and Public Health England are actively engaged in the planning and development of this approach.”
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: email@example.com