The parents of a Natasha Abrahart, a Bristol University student with severe social anxiety who took her own life on the day she was scheduled to do a test, have launched legal proceedings against her university, claiming she was the victim of negligence.
Her parents told VICE about this decision – unprecedented in the UK – in a long read last year. "If I could think of the people I knew who might die by suicide, Natasha would never have been on that list," Abrahart's mother Margaret said at the time.
Abrahart was found dead at the age of 20 in her flat after she failed to attend a “laboratory conference” involving a presentation in a 329-seat lecture theatre. Her parents, Robert and Margaret, have filed a county court claim alleging the university fell short in its duty to “to take reasonable care” of their daughter’s “wellbeing, health and safety”. They argue that university staff knew enough about her severe anxiety, panic attacks and the fact that she was seriously struggling to have given her more support.
In the claim, Abrahart’s parents say she had three suicidal episodes before she died and was afraid that she would lose her place on her course if she didn't attend the conference.
Robert Abrahart told the Guardian: “We know nothing will bring her back but we feel the University of Bristol should at least acknowledge what happened in the lead-up to Natasha’s death, show some remorse or regret, and apologise. Until that happens how will the university prevent the same mistakes that we believe occurred from happening again? We will continue to campaign to ensure that other students don’t endure the suffering Natasha did.”
Abrahart's death was not unique. In the 18 months between October of 2016 and April of 2018, 11 Bristol University students, including Abrahart, died by suspected suicide. Bristol is not alone in its problems with student mental health – about one UK student dies every four days, and we now know that deaths happen disproportionately among freshers – though the number at Bristol is significant.
Her parents and the parents of other students who died by suicide have criticised Bristol University for not launching an independent investigation into student deaths and how to make a genuine and meaningful difference to student wellbeing. At the inquest of 19-year-old student Ben Murray in May 2019, an Avon coroner told the University that she was concerned it did not carry out a "serious investigation" after his death. The student was told by letter to leave his course and his death subsequently followed.
The Abrahart's claim is for disability discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 and negligence. The family’s lawyer, Gus Silverman, of Irwin Mitchell, told the Guardian: “The university owed Natasha legal duties not to cause her psychological harm and to ensure its assessment regime didn’t discriminate against her as a disabled student. Natasha’s parents are firmly of the view that the university didn’t meet these legal duties.
“Natasha’s parents have had to turn to the civil courts to seek justice for their daughter. They are determined to try to improve the standard of care provided to vulnerable students around the country.”
The university argues that staff repeatedly tried to help Abrahart and measures were in place to help her to continue on her course. A spokesperson told VICE: "Legal proceedings regarding Natasha's death are now underway, and so it would be inappropriate for the University to comment further at the present time. Wellbeing remains at the heart of our University and we will continue to develop and implement our mental health support services and strategies to ensure our students and staff have access to the most effective and timely support possible.”