Faye was struggling to keep up with the flurry of WhatsApp messages. “They literally have a whole group of people telling them…” one friend wrote. “And they just sit back and do nothing.”
Faye replied: “So like what do we do? Do we keep trying to stop it?”
For months, Faye and her close-knit circle at the University of Bristol had been coping with the deteriorating mental health of their friend and course-mate, Justin Cheng. In a group chat initially set up by six friends to plan a binge-watching session of their favourite TV show, they were now desperately trying to figure out how they could help him.
But within a month of those anxious messages, sent in December 2017, Justin, a 24-year-old third-year law student, took his own life. At the time, he was the seventh student to die suddenly at the University within 18 months. Since then, four more Bristol students have died in suspected suicides.
Simplifying the reasons why someone takes their own life does little to understand the complexity of mental illness and suicide. According to the Samaritans, the UK’s leading emotional support charity, attempting to identify clear-cut causes or perceived “triggers” can be misleading. So-called “clusters” of suicides are a documented phenomenon, too, but identifying them can be difficult in practice, and potentially self-fulfilling.
Yet the series of 11 sudden deaths at the University of Bristol, nearly all of which have been judged by a coroner to have been by suicide – though none were found to be otherwise connected – has fuelled anger among students.
A protest in May saw attendees criticise the university’s newly-announced £1 million investment in mental health services, with a £300m new campus. University bosses have admitted existing support services are “not fit for purpose” and say they have listened to the criticism, agreeing to reverse plans to reduce live-in pastoral care in halls of residence. New mental health “crisis hubs” will open as the university’s 22,000 students begin the new academic year next month.
But the response, Justin’s friends say, is too little, too late. In interviews conducted over several months, often online or on messaging apps, HuffPost UK spoke to five of Justin’s close friends for this story, and two more corroborated details. We also obtained dozens of contemporary messages, and the university’s statement to an inquest explaining its welfare provision.
The correspondence appears to show the University of Bristol’s support services struggling to answer the group’s increasingly desperate pleas for help, confusion around Justin’s basic information, including his address in halls jointly run by the university, and a lack of support for those left behind after he died.
In emails, the group repeatedly warned of Justin’s threats to his own life and his increasingly threatening behaviour. At least one crisis meeting with professional support staff was cancelled at short notice. It wasn’t rescheduled, the friends say. And as Justin’s condition worsened and as his behaviour became more volatile, the university’s support services hindered their efforts to help Justin, they claim.
Other emails from the time show the university’s confusion over Justin’s basic information. In one message, a senior staff tutor in charge of pastoral support admitted they did not know where Justin lived until January, despite at least two incidents in the weeks prior where police were called to his address in halls of residence, which are jointly run by the university. The discovery, just five days before his death, confirmed he was fully accessible to support services. A coroner ruled in July that his death was by suicide.
Correspondence between the university and Justin’s friendship group also raise questions about Bristol’s support for those affected in wake of his suicide. Two of Justin’s close friends asked for permission to delay an assignment that was due soon after he died. They were initially given just a three-day extension.
Like Justin, who was from Canada, his close friends were international students at the University of Bristol, with all but one studying law. Together they have roots across three continents. They describe how they were left to cope with their friend’s declining mental health on their own, and say they are speaking out in the hope of improving the situation for others at the university. They chose to do so anonymously out of a desire to try and move on from their friend’s death, by finding jobs or recommencing their studies.
Though Justin’s family declined to be interviewed for this story, they have given their consent for this article to go ahead in the hope it will raise awareness and push universities to continue to improve policies for vulnerable students.
When asked to comment for this article, Mark Ames, director of student services at the University of Bristol, said Justin’s death “was devastating for all who knew him and who had been supporting him.”
He added: “An inquest into Justin’s death was held in July, during which the coroner stated that Justin’s personal tutor, the senior tutor, his GP and the University’s Vulnerable Students Support Service took a number of steps to support Justin in the months prior to his death.
“Our thoughts remain with Justin’s family and friends, and with the members of our community who have been deeply affected by his tragic death.”
How do you help a friend who seems a bit down? You’ve noticed they’re acting differently. The vibrant, sweet and kind person you know seems dulled. They’re nocturnal – hardly seen in daylight hours – even when you’re on holiday. They seem more reclusive. There may have been a few off comments. Perhaps you sit them down to talk – though you fear this might make them retreat further. Maybe distraction is the best way forward – let’s go to the pub, you say.
As your friend’s mood appears to worsen, you might Google the symptoms you’ve noticed. An advert for the Samaritans crops up – is it time to worry?
Then imagine this is playing out against the backdrop of a series of sudden deaths at the university you attend. Things might start to feel a little more urgent. This is the situation Justin Cheng’s friends found themselves in around November last year.
For Faye, her friendship with Justin quickly became one of the best things about Bristol. “Everyone that met [him] loved him. At his core he was such a sweet, caring person,” she says. The group had a running joke about how forgetful he was – only Justin would lose his passport just days before a planned a trip to Croatia, but turn up and surprise them after secretly sorting out a new one.
But over time, the Justin they knew began to change. All the friends agree they noticed a difference during their second year, perhaps as far back as 2016. He started skipping most of his lectures and tutorials, something they say should have raised a red flag sooner. Later he become nocturnal. By last summer, they began to notice some odd new traits in him.
The group say they approached the university with concerns for Justin’s wellbeing at different times. One friend raised his worsening mood almost at the start of their third year, in September 2017. Others approached the university in November.
By that time, the university had seen six suspected student suicides in little more than a year, and the friends thought this context would mean that by raising the alarm about Justin’s frame of mind, support would be readily available.
But looking back, his friends say their repeated warnings – that Justin had specifically spoken about self-harm, that he had begun discussing alternative realities, and had hinted at “ending a journey” – were not adequately dealt with.
Emails seen by HuffPost UK from November 2017 appear to illustrate their claim that the Vulnerable Student Support Service (VSSS) – described by the prestigious Russell Group, the equivalent of America’s Ivy League, last year as pioneering in its “pre-emptive work” to help “manage crises” – repeatedly failed to address their concerns. In a statement to an inquest into the death of another Bristol student, held in January 2018, the university said that the service – since renamed the Student Wellbeing Service – aims to support staff who identify students at risk. “If any member of staff is concerned that a student is vulnerable, they can seek advice [from the vulnerable students’ team],” the statement read. “That team coordinate across the university and NHS services as required so that risk is managed and students are provided with support.”
But messages sent at the time suggest the service did not respond to a request for a meeting regarding Justin from Elizabeth Mumford, the law school’s senior academic tutor. “I spoke with the vulnerable students people again today and they seemed unsure as to whether they could manage [our meeting] tomorrow afternoon,” Mumford told one of the friends in a November email. The session was never rescheduled, the friends claim, and instead, Mumford – a teaching fellow with the additional responsibility of tutoring students – gathered them for a general discussion on his and their welfare. All the friends say that this was one of several occasions they felt Mumford went beyond her duties to help them.
Please keep us updated. He has not been letting anyone see him and cancelled all the plans he made with us
As the weeks went on and December arrived, messages sent between the friends on WhatsApp – in a group that Justin left in the weeks before he died – reveal their concerns mounting sharply. “Has Justin not answered anyone?” one of them asked. “Nope :/” another responded.
On 4th December, there’s a discussion in the group about a planned visit from Justin’s father. The visit is said to have been planned for months and was not in response to any particular concerns. However, while he was in the country, Justin’s dad was invited by Mumford to a meeting. It’s unclear from interviews with the friends, and from emails sent at the time, whether Mumford did this in her role as senior academic tutor or personally, outside of the official remit of the university. Mumford declined to comment. The university said it had been “in contact with Justin’s family” during this period.
It’s around this time that, in messages sent on WhatsApp, there is mention of Justin talking about a “personal holiday”. All of the friends say they took this at the time to mean he planned to take his own life, in part due to another message sent by Justin before he left the group, in which described his “next step”.
In an email to Mumford the following day, 5th December, one of the friends write explicitly: “As far as we know, he is still planning on killing himself because he has mentioned it recently [to one of us],” they wrote. “December 12 is supposedly the day we should be worried about because that is when his father leaves. I just wanted you to be aware of this so that you won’t be persuaded by anything he says to the contrary… Please keep us updated. He has not been letting anyone see him and cancelled all the plans he made with us.”
Another friend recalls in an interview it felt as though things were building to a crisis point. “We were concerned about his talk of suicide, his slowly cutting us off, his not showing up at uni, his self-esteem and the pressure he put himself under,” the friend says. “It was all this long, slow burn.”
All of the friends describe Mumford as a rock of support, doing her best despite being bound by strict university policy on privacy and procedures on the escalation of welfare concerns. “We do not blame her whatsoever or feel she could have done more,” one of the friends says. “She was extremely sympathetic and caring toward us, but because of university policy she could not do anything more.” Mumford declined to comment for this story.
A university’s responsibility towards students experiencing mental health difficulties is not clear cut, though it is generally accepted by the sector that a duty of care exists – even where students are over the age of 18.
“Universities have a duty of care to support students experiencing mental health difficulties and to safeguard those at risk,” a May 2018 report from Universities UK, which represents institutions, states. “For [students] who develop difficulties during their time at university, access to appropriate care can be challenging,” it adds. There can be problems for larger institutions in ensuring their duty of care is discharged, according to a May 2015 report, this time by AMOSSHE, the student services organisation. “Larger institutions may have more bureaucracy in place with regards to process and procedure, which may make some cases more complex to manage than they might otherwise be,” the report says.
It’s the belief of all of the members of Justin’s close-knit friendship group that the 5th December email – which said explicitly that Justin planned to take his life – should have triggered the university’s “fitness to study” policy. This policy deals with situations where intervention by the institution may be necessary, and is said by the University of Bristol to provide “a suitable and co-ordinated response in circumstances where… the situation is deemed to be urgent”.
Sian Jones-Davies, a lawyer who has worked with universities to develop welfare policies described them as playing a “vital role in assisting institutions to manage student mental health issues effectively and lawfully in the interests of students, staff and the institution as a whole”.
He never made it appear as though there was a threat to his studies, he was always very confident that he was going to be able to stay and finish
Yet crucial differences in “fitness to study” policies means no two institutions are the same. For instance, at Bristol’s other university, the University of West England, the fitness to study policy is worded to allow staff to contact the parents of students if the institution believes “there’s an immediate threat to a person’s vital interests”. At the University of Bristol, no clause concerning parent contact exists, according to a policy document dated June 2018.
Instead, one provision of the policy would see the university work with a student to formulate a formal plan for their recovery while setting out their responsibilities. Another provision is a short-term suspension. In extreme cases, full withdrawal can be enforced. In all these scenarios, the policy document appears to suggest that all contact, whether through emails or letters, should be solely with the student concerned.
The University of Bristol declined to disclose whether the fitness to study policy was implemented in Justin’s case, and it’s unclear if it would have helped him during his deterioration. The friends say they don’t know whether it was invoked. “He never made it appear as though there was a threat to his studies, he was always very confident that he was going to be able to stay and finish,” one friend says. It was this confidence, several of the friends say in interviews, that may have allowed Justin to convince university staff be was able to continue as normal. The University of Bristol said: “Justin was adamant that he didn’t wish to stop his studies or return to Canada.”
The notification came early on 12th December, to the same WhatsApp group. It was the day flagged in the email to Elizabeth Mumford as a date to watch out for. “[Justin] just said to me… ‘The next time I hear someone has told anyone else about my personal vacation I will have to take them with me’,” the message from one of the friends read.
Looking back, the group say they were on high alert. Most of them were still in Bristol but others were already on their way home for Christmas. They knew Justin’s father was due to return to Canada that day. But when that text came in, messages in their group WhatsApp show a flurry of panic. The notifications were rapid, some overlapped.
“Someone call the police,” one friend wrote. “He’s making threats,” another said.
In interviews, the friends say that this was a turning point – the moment some of them realised the Justin they knew had gone. Disturbed, they discussed how to respond. “Does anyone have Elizabeth’s [number]?” one of the friends asks the group at the time. “I have two private numbers for her,” another quickly responded. While one friend called Mumford to report the situation, another tried the Vulnerable Students Support Service. “[I] called vulnerable students,” Faye wrote in the group a few minutes later. “They can’t do anything… [because] it’s not a university building.”
Justin was living in a studio flat in a halls of residence called Harbour Court. On its website, the University of Bristol says Harbour Court is “run in partnership” with a private accommodation provider, Prime Student Living. But on 12th December, the friends were informed that it was not a university building, thus inaccessible to staff. An email from Elizabeth Mumford sent weeks later, in January, stated that the university was not aware that Justin was living at Harbour Court at the time. “The significance of this is that the Harbour Court is within university control and there is a warden and a team of other staff who have responsibility for residents there,” Mumford wrote on 7th January.
But the revelation did little to help the friends, or Justin, in December. “What the fuck can the university do then?” one friend asked in a message on 12th December. “They’ve literally done nothing.”
That’s the part that really sticks with me, they left it in the hands of a bunch of 20-year-olds to manage this
In desperation, they called the police. Avon and Somerset Constabulary confirmed it received a call to an incident at Harbour Court that night. It said officers did not attend “as the incident was dealt with by another agency”. It is unclear who this agency was. Prime Student Living declined to confirm any details about the 12th December incident, claiming such information was confidential. The University of Bristol declined to comment on how it supported Justin in his accommodation, but said: “We are confident Justin knew support was readily on hand and that many people at the university were doing their utmost to help him.”
A day later, a person in the Vulnerable Student Support Service called one of Justin’s friends to understand more about why the police were contacted. After recounting the events, the friend was asked by the staff member if they would allow the details of their concerns for Justin to be shared with him. In an interview, the friend says they felt this demonstrated how “useless” the support service was. “It shouldn’t have been left to us to shoulder the entire burden of our friend’s deterioration,” they reflect later. “That’s the part that really sticks with me, they left it in the hands of a bunch of 20-year-olds to manage this, even though we had gone to the police and the university,” another says.
In the weeks leading up to the Christmas break, the friends say they were told by Mumford that Justin had failed to attend several planned meetings with university staff and the Vulnerable Students Support Service. Calls and texts to him went unanswered, Mumford said in an email to one of the friends. “I appreciate that Justin does sometimes disappear for a period of time, but [I] am nevertheless concerned,” she wrote. All the friends say in interviews that the university support services appeared at the time to be unwilling to go to Justin’s address. “The man’s missing exams, he’s not going to like come in and talk to you if he doesn’t want to,” Faye reflects in a recent interview.
On 23rd December, one of Justin’s friends received a picture which appeared to show him injured. The image was so worrying, the friend immediately called the police. Officers attended Justin’s address and spoke with him that day, Avon and Somerset Constabulary later confirmed, but according to the friends they did not enter his room. Had they done so, the friends say in interviews and in messages at the time, officers could have discovered evidence that Justin was preparing to take his own life.
The local South West Ambulance Service said it attended an incident on 23rd December, in which one patient was taken to hospital. Further concerns for Justin’s welfare that day prompted a second visit from police. Avon and Somerset Constabulary said that when officers attended the second time, Justin did not answer.
It’s unclear from recent interviews with Justin’s friends – or from messages sent at the time – how he spent the Christmas break. In the New Year, Elizabeth Mumford emailed one friend to update them on the situation. “Justin had not updated his student records,” Mumford wrote in an email dated 7th January. “I did not realise until last week that he was living in Harbour Court. I thought he was in private accommodation…” The University of Bristol did not answer questions about why Mumford appeared not to know Justin’s address.
Justin died away from Bristol, in Treborough, Somerset, five days later.
It was a Wednesday when Faye opened her email inbox and saw confirmation from Elizabeth Mumford that Justin had died.
“We were not able to tell anyone officially until we knew that the police in Canada had told Justin’s parents. As his closest friends we wanted to tell you as soon as it was confirmed that his parents knew – and before any general announcement to staff or other students,” Mumford wrote to several of the friends interviewed for this article on 17th January.
Two days later, Faye received another email, this time from the Vulnerable Students Support Service. Faye says it struck her as odd at the time that the email contained similar wording to one she had been sent a year earlier when another student died suddenly at Bristol. “Our team is responsible for talking to Justin’s family, and for making sure that his friends know that support is available should it be helpful to know,” the email read. “We’re available between 9.00am and 5.00pm Monday – Friday, but you can leave a message outside of those times.”
In an interview, Faye reflected on how the email appeared impersonal. “At this point you could just have a student intern sending out the [condolence] emails that they send,” she says. “Their responses to all of us was clearly copy and paste. Like ‘dear blah blah blah’. I’m pretty sure my name was spelt wrong. That’s it. No follow up.”
But her personal tutors behaved differently, Faye says, continually offering her their support. “I don’t think that’s because they had to. I don’t think that that’s in their protocol to, I think that’s because they both cared about me.”
All the friends agree that Elizabeth Mumford’s email following the news was by far the sincerest. “I had so hoped that this would not happen,” her email read. “All of you did everything you could to support Justin; you were the best of friends to him.”
A few days after Justin’s death was confirmed, another friend’s personal tutors in the law department got in touch to invite her to a meeting. “I was thinking of a time after 4pm when I have finished teaching for the day,” the tutor wrote. Another friend received a similar message: “Just wondering how things are with you? What I really mean to write is: how are you? Are you coping?”
The University of Bristol website describes personal tutors as providing “crucial support during your studies”. “[T]hey can give advice on how to juggle your studies with health (or other) problems,” the university states. “[T]he support you receive from your personal tutor should be just that: personal, set up to help you.” But the friends say now that there was a big difference in the support they received from Elizabeth Mumford and others. At a recent pre-inquest review into the sudden death of another student, Natasha Abrahart, who died in April, a lawyer representing the University of Bristol told the coroner: “Relationships between students and the tutors vary enormously. Some academics are very, very involved...”
I think international students have a right to know the kind of treatment they should expect if they are vulnerable in any way
Justin’s friends all say in interviews they received no further contact from the Vulnerable Students Support Service. Some of them applied for extensions on their coursework deadlines, citing the university’s extenuating circumstances policy. “[On] Wednesday morning I was alerted to the fact that one of my friends had [died suddenly] after a five-month downward struggle with his mental health,” one of the friend’s requests for a 10-day extension read. “This news has come less than a week before three major deadlines. I find my inability to concentrate and process what has happened is impacting my ability to do productive work in the time remaining [before the official deadline]. I do not necessarily need to use the entirety of what I am requesting, but the knowledge of that breathing room would life a significant burden.” The application was denied, and the friend was offered just three days extra.
In an interview, Faye recalls thinking, “has [a suicide] even happened here before, because it like literally feels like no-one knows what to do.” The friends say the three-day extensions were later increased upon two further requests.
Messages sent at the time make clear the friends’ displeasure at the way the university was handling the situation. “I honestly have lost faith in everyone but our friends,” Faye wrote in a message sent in December. The group say now that they believe they were let down – both academically and pastorally – by the university. “Essentially we had to get ourselves through this,” one says in an interview. “I think international students have a right to know the kind of treatment they should expect if they are vulnerable in any way”.
Faye was so affected by the death, she didn’t feel able to attend her own graduation ceremony. “I think that’s one of the reasons I didn’t go... I couldn’t sit there and feel the absence of the friend I used to have,” she says. “I’m proud of myself for what I did, but what am I celebrating? Who do I have to celebrate with?”
In the weeks and months following Justin’s death, several of the friends say they have been angered by comments made by the University of Bristol’s vice-chancellor, Hugh Brady, who has suggested mental health issues among students and young people are affected by their use of social media. “...I think where there is probably general agreement is that the burden of social media may well be the straw that has broken the camel’s back and particularly this issue of what some people refer to as perfectionism,” Brady said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper in February.
Professor David Gunnell, a leading expert in suicide and resident academic at the University of Bristol, was asked by The Times newspaper in June whether the series of sudden deaths there were the result of bad luck. “We’re dealing with a tragic cluster situation rather than systemic failure,” he said. “[P]eople ... telling a story of student services not being fit for purpose... can put people off using them at the very time when it is most important for vulnerable people to be seeking help,” he added.
In response to HuffPost UK’s questions regarding Justin Cheng’s death, Mark Ames, director of student services at the University of Bristol, said: “An inquest into Justin’s death was held in July, during which the coroner stated that Justin’s personal tutor, the senior tutor, his GP and the university’s Vulnerable Students Support Service took a number of steps to support Justin in the months prior to his death.
“The university was in contact with Justin’s family – his father flew over from Canada before Christmas and we met with them both to discuss how best to help Justin. Justin was adamant that he didn’t wish to stop his studies or return to Canada. After he missed some of his regular GP appointments, our welfare services tried several times to get in touch with him both before and after Christmas, evidence of which was presented at the inquest. Justin’s subsequent death in early January was devastating for all who knew him and who had been supporting him.
“We are confident Justin knew support was readily on hand and that many people at the university were doing their utmost to help him. This was evidenced at the inquest, where the coroner found no fault with the care and support offered to Justin.
“Following Justin’s death, support from a range of services and from the academic school was offered to Justin’s close friends. Support was also made available to those staff who had been trying to help Justin.
“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. We are being supported in this work by mental health leads from the NHS and Public Health England.
“Our thoughts remain with Justin’s family and friends, and with the members of our community who have been deeply affected by his tragic death.”
For now, Justin’s friends are trying to remember him at his best: caring, sweet and kind. The one thing Faye remembers most, she says now, is how Justin would intuitively know when she was under pressure. “He would always pick up on times when I was a little more stressed,” she says. “He would always do random things like take me out for dinner, he’d say ‘let’s go out for dinner’, and while I’m in the bathroom or something, he would go and pay. He was very, very kind, quite soft-spoken, he didn’t really like confrontation, and that’s the Justin that I’m remembering now.”
Faye is a pseudonym.
Useful UK 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: firstname.lastname@example.org
CLARIFICATION: This article was amended on 29 August to reflect a correction in The Times newspaper regarding its interview with Professor David Gunnell.
This article was further amended on 31 August to correct an error. Justin Cheng died in Treborough, Somerset, not in Cornwall as we originally stated.