‘When you stop fighting, you start mourning’: Parents are fighting

DAfter their daughter died in April 2018, Robert and Margaret Abrahart became detectives. “It’s a survival process – we’re going to be the subject, we’re going to organize,” Robert said. “That seems to be the only way to deal with it.” The day Natasha, a student at the University of Bristol, was told they had committed suicide, they went to identify her body, then went to clean her flat. There they found an envelope containing Natasha all her online passwords. Back home in Nottingham, they logged into her university email account and found their daughter telling at least one staff member that she was feeling suicidal.

In the four years since then, they have sought an answer, turning it into a civic action against the University of Bristol, which was heard for several days last month. A verdict is yet to come on whether the university violated its legal obligation to Natasha and, if so, whether it contributed to her death (for which compensation must be paid). It’s been a long, costly process – couples paid their pensions to pay for it – but even a successful outcome would not seem like a victory, says Margaret, unless it begins a broader understanding of student suicide, and makes sense at all universities. Change. “We want to tell the universities, if this happened to Natasha, could it happen to anyone else? Why stop it?

Natasha’s death was one of 11 suicides or suspected suicides in Bristol between 2016 and 2018. In 2018, the university’s vice-chancellor, Professor Hugh Brady, said: “The death of a student for any reason is a real tragedy. Quickly, a number really shed tears at the very heart of our organization, and now our motto is: Mental health is everyone’s business at our university. “

Natasha, 20, was extremely intelligent, loved math and physics, and was a highly accomplished student. She was close to her younger brother, had a group of friends whom she had known for a long time and was also a lover. From an early age, he also showed signs of social anxiety disorder: he did not talk in class, was wary of new people, and even talked to supposedly simple things like shop staff, he would pass on to his friends. At university, her parents have since learned that Natasha used to send other people to the bar to order drinks for her.

Her parents were not worried about her going to university because she was very self-reliant and independent. “What I didn’t see was that her strengths were actually linked to her social concerns,” Margaret said, “because that means she doesn’t have to talk to other people.”

Natasha committed suicide the day she was scheduled to give a presentation as part of her physics degree. He found verbal assessment almost impossible, missing an interview and missing others, which meant he was at risk of not passing the module and progressing.

Natasha Abrahart in 2016.
Natasha Abrahart in 2016. Photo: Family Handout / PA

In an investigation into her death in 2019, Corona concluded that the amount of negligence by the Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership Trust, where Natasha was referred after seeing a university GP, contributed to her suicide. Investigations and trials have found evidence that Natasha was probably terrified of the presentation she was supposed to give to students and staff at a large lecture theater. Abrahart believes the investigation did not look into the details of the university’s role in their daughter’s death and why – despite Natasha’s difficulties – she was not given the support she needed.

Robert noted that they have an ideal background for pursuing such a cause – he was a professor of geography at the University of Nottingham and Margaret worked at the NHS mental health services. They both have a perception of the world. “We’re retired,” he added. “We can spend the whole day in it.”

They sued Bristol under the Equality Act, arguing that Natasha had been discriminated against because of her mental disability and that the university could make reasonable adjustments. “They knew there was a problem,” Robert said. “School of Physics staff thought he couldn’t fix it until he jumped with hoops.” Staffers had been aware since at least the previous October that Natasha had fought the verbal assessment. A lecturer contacted the university’s disability services for advice on what could be adjusted, but he did not listen and did not follow through. Natasha also contacted an administration manager at the department and told him in an email that she had suicidal thoughts; The manager took her to an appointment with the university’s GP, but the investigation found no evidence that the administrator informed the Student Welfare Service about Natasha’s risk of suicide.

Robert and Margaret complained that Natasha was tasked with contacting these services and filling out a form with a description of her situation – but with social anxiety and depression her parents believed it was an impossible task. “Everyone is trying to get him to signposts for help, but the biggest problem with social concerns is talking to people and that’s exactly what they’re recommending,” said Margaret. “He couldn’t get the doctor’s letter, he couldn’t fill out the form, which they claim they’ll be able to adjust,” Robert said. He believes that Natasha’s difficulties were obvious, and that further allowances – such as switching oral presentations for a written assessment – could easily be made. “It simply came to our notice then. Six months later, he still hasn’t done it, and then his six months of absence, bad marks, growing frustration, and then he’s committed suicide. “

In March 2018, Robert received a phone call from Natasha’s flatmate that he had attempted suicide (a few days later). Natasha, who liked talking on the phone, said she felt good and would not do it again. “We wanted to pick him up and he stopped us,” Margaret said. They confirmed that he had made an appointment with the GP the next morning. He took a break for Easter the next day, but kept coming home late, until Margaret went downstairs to tell him not to come back.

“It’s hard to know what to do,” Robert said. “You can go downstairs and drag him, but he’s an adult.”

On the Easter holiday Natasha felt better, even quieter than usual, but when Margaret tried to talk to him about the suicide attempt, he refused to discuss it. Natasha told her parents that the university knew what was happening, but she did not tell them about the presentation she was worried about. Just two weeks after Margaret took Natasha back to Bristol, Natasha committed suicide.

What Abrahart hopes to get out of their court case is “more clarity in the equality law, and more clarity in care responsibilities,” Robert said. She says investing in more counselors and reducing the waiting time for students to improve their mental health, but they don’t believe it will help Natasha with her special difficulties (her boyfriend told them she was given a helpline number; when she called, they turned off the phone). Until he was silent).

They are furious about the way, in Natasha’s case, they believe the problem was transferred to the NHS, without reflecting on the grievances they complained about. “In all areas of business, people have occupational health, but we don’t seem to have it [for students]Margaret says. “And yet everyone knows that study is stressful. It’s about universities looking at their processes: is it safe? Is this actually the best way? Is it part of their education? There was a thought that students should not be here if they do not accept it. ” Robert added: “Universities are not a test of tolerance – people go there for education.”

In its official response, the university said academic and non-academic staff tried to engage Abrahart with alternative assessments. But it argued that removing the use of verbal assessment was unreasonable because it would “compromise” with Abrahart’s teaching. In a statement at the end of the court case, the University of Bristol stated that “physics school staff were instrumental in helping Natasha access appropriate professional assistance” and that this, in particular, where the presentation was concerned, included colleagues’ efforts to present her laboratory results to her peers. Offering alternatives to assess Natasha’s concerns, including not taking her on stage, not allowing others to appear, and not answering any further questions. May change. “

Outside of Natasha, Abraharts now wants to see increased protection for all vulnerable young adults, often staying away from home for the first time. This may end up with issues such as dismissing students from their courses via email. “You don’t get it on the job,” Robert said. In July 2020, Meredith Foulcos, a student at Cardiff University, took her own life after receiving an automated email stating that she had failed her exam and would not be allowed to enter her third year, although her exam results were later upgraded to pass; In February of this year, Cardiff apologized.

A few days after Natasha’s death, another student from Bristol, Ben Murray, took his own life. Instead of a face-to-face meeting, he was told by letter and email that he would be expelled from the university if he failed to deliver a speech and an examination. Following Marr’s death, and the campaign run by his family, Bristol reviewed the dismissal process and introduced a policy whereby students would agree with the university to contact their parents if they were concerned about their well-being.

According to the latest figures, 95 students have committed suicide in England and Wales in the 12 months since July 2017, and Abrahart is in contact with other affected families. Each year, Margaret said, “It’s possible there are about 100 people who could have had preventable deaths. With so many students, we see that they may have opted out, not fully involved with the university in a timely manner. If you can do something that At first glance, before people make that first attempt, people won’t go any further along the line. ” Without centralized observation, Margaret believes, it is easier for universities to view the small number of suicides in each institution as a tragic inconsistency. “But if you put all the universities together, you can learn from each other,” he says “And if it saves a life, it can save the pain of losing …” he paused. “One of the things I’ve learned is how many people are affected by suicide.” Not just Natasha’s family and friends, but staff as well.

Despite saying a lot about the legal process, Margaret and Robert find it difficult to describe the effects of their daughter’s death on themselves. “Every big life event will be noticed by the fact that Natasha is not there,” Margaret said. “It simply came to our notice then. The sensitive side, we put it away; We’ve focused on practical issues instead, because it’s easy. “Four years into the legal battle, he said,” our new job, so when it’s gone, he’ll die and he’ll have to deal with it. When you stop fighting. That’s when you start to mourn. So it’s a very mixed feeling. ”

  • In the UK, Papyrus, a youth suicide charity, can be contacted on 0800 068 4141 or by email at [email protected] In the UK, Samaritans can be reached at 116 123 or by email at [email protected] In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org

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