A university student’s request for help following a suicide attempt was ignored for weeks when campus welfare advisors went on strike just months before she died, a damning internal review has found.
Ceara Thacker, 19, passed away suddenly in May, three months after telling staff at the University of Liverpool she had made an attempt on her life.
An internal review by the university found that, despite knowing about planned industrial action, staff in charge of welfare support did not appear to put in place plans to help students in crisis.
It meant Thacker’s self-referral form requesting help following the suicide attempt went unanswered for over a month. She died weeks later.
The internal review was ordered by a coroner, who is due to preside over an inquest into the teenager’s death on Wednesday. It has been shared with HuffPost UK by her parents.
The reasons why somebody may take their own life are complex, and the Samaritans, the UK’s leading emotional support charity, cautions against pinpointing one event as a potential trigger. However, the review raises questions over the support available for students with mental health issues at the University of Liverpool, as institutions across the UK are presented with an increasing demand for mental health support.
Thacker’s parents have shared the university’s report with HuffPost UK in an effort to increase awareness of the gaps between local mental health services and to campaign for a “more sensible approach to data protection”.
The university’s review, written by its director of student administration and support, Dr Paula Harrison-Woods, said that during a “period of extended industrial action there was no one available within the Mental Health Advisory Service to see students”.
The document states that strikes occurred over a period of three weeks between February and March this year.
Her father Iain, mother Lorraine, stepdad Nick and stepmother Sue, are united in demanding answers over the standard of care given to her as her mental health declined.
“The gap between the NHS mental health services and the university is just enormous,” Sue Bennett, Thacker’s stepmother, said in an interview.
Bennett said that Thacker attended a local accident and emergency department after experiencing suicidal thoughts just two weeks into her studies in October 2017.
By 21st February this year her mental health had declined to the point that she attempted to take her own life. According to the university’s report, Thacker immediately informed staff.
“She went down to reception [in her university-run halls of residence] and told them. They put her in a taxi to the hospital with a friend,” Bennett said. “But at no point was any part of the academic part of the university advised.”
The internal review conducted by the university states that Thacker attended her hall reception desk distressed and that staff looked at her records “and saw that she had declared mental health difficulties” but had no further details.
Details about the incident were passed to the hall’s residential advisors – a team of older postgraduate or mature students tasked with offering support in residences.
The review adds that her request for help went unanswered in the period between 22nd February and 26th March due to “extended industrial action” and overstretched staffing, as one member of the institution’s small student mental health team left their role.
Thacker, who was in her first year, eventually met with an advisor on 24th April, over two months after she referred herself for support following the suicide attempt in February.
During that meeting, the advisor noted her “current suicidal thoughts” but said that the philosophy student “felt able to keep herself safe”.
The university’s internal review states that, at the time, a senior member of its mental health team “planned to offer a further appointment but was still catching up with appointments following the industrial action”.
Thacker was found dead in her university accommodation on 11th May.
Her parents said they were told about her previous suicide attempt as they packed up her belongings in her halls room two days later.
“It’s as though the universities have been caught short,” Thacker’s stepmother, Sue Bennett, said. “They have not realised that this generation of kids who have started to suffer with their mental health to the extent they have sought professional help are now going to university.”
Ceara’s mother, Lorraine Denton-Thacker, said in an interview that she is also concerned about support for her daughter’s friends.
“I am in touch with a lot of Ceara’s friends from university and, for me, the responsibility for her care seemed to fall to a group of people that were not equipped to deal with it,” she said. “They are still bearing that responsibility and that is what I find difficult to deal with going forward. Young people shouldn’t have to take on that level of responsibility. They had no idea what to do and they are all equally suffering now. It’s not gone away. That’s horrendous.”
Some of Thacker’s friends had sought support for their mental health off campus away from the university after her death, she added.
“We don’t want the same things to happen again,” Thacker’s father, Iain, said. “Otherwise it might just go unnoticed and become just another statistic and nothing’s improved.”
He pointed towards a clause in the university’s mental health code of practice which states that confidentiality can be broken in instances where “where there are serious grounds for concern about the student’s mental well-being”.
“We, as her parents, were the last to know,” he added of Thacker’s February suicide attempt. “That’s stuck with me. It has to change.”
The University of Liverpool and Mersey Care NHS Trust, which also cared for Thacker during her time in Liverpool, both said they would not comment until the conclusion of the inquest.
Useful websites and helplines:
Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 UK and Ireland (this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).
You can call Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
Get Connected is a free advice service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
HopeLine runs a confidential advice helpline if you are a young person at risk of suicide or are worried about a young person at risk of suicide. Monday-Friday 10-5pm and 7pm-10pm. Weekends 2pm-5pm on 0800 068 41 41.
Maytree is a sanctuary for the suicidal in north London in a non-medical setting. For help or to enquire about a stay, call 020 7263 7070.
Rape Crisis services for women and girls who have been raped or have experienced sexual violence - 0808 802 9999
Survivors UK offers support for men and boys - 0203 598 3898
This article is part of HuffPost UK’s series investigating student mental health across the UK. If you would like to get in touch with our reporter, email George.Bowden@huffpost.com.