Life

How More Than 12 Students at One University Ended Up Dead By Suicide

Why were there so many deaths at Bristol university?

by Hannah Ewens; photos by Bekky Lonsdale
08 October 2019, 8:15am

Bob and Maggie Abrahart, parents of late University of Bristol student Natasha Abrahart; (R) Photos of Natasha in their home

Bob Abrahart greets me at the front door of the three-storey detached house he shares with his wife Maggie in suburban Nottingham, shaking my hand so warmly I forget for a moment why I'm here. Absentmindedly, I ask how his retirement is going and he responds, "Well, it was going OK." He leads me into the living room, where on every wall, ledge, piece of furniture – anything that would constitute a surface – his late daughter Natasha's face smiles back. I feel Bob hang back for a moment, allowing me to take in the room.

Natasha's friends kept coming to the house, he tells me, so he and Maggie put up the collection of photos leftover from her wake. Her friends are "all very young and didn't know what to do or say or what was going on, so we use these photos to make them feel at home". Natasha died in April of 2018. I meet Bob and Maggie a year later. Now, grief comes in shades and at odd moments, cutting through when a forgotten memory surfaces. It's no longer raw-edged.

Maggie walks in from the kitchen holding two mugs of coffee. She and Bob talk about Natasha in the present tense. Both parents have dedicated their lives and retirement savings to working out why their eldest child died while attending Bristol University.

In the 18 months between October of 2016 and April of 2018, 11 Bristol University students died by suspected suicide. In the year-and-a-half since, that number has risen to at least 13. For parents left behind, closure can feel impossible. They could investigate through an inquest, where a coroner calls witnesses to look into a sudden or unnatural death. What's known as a pre-inquest review hearing offers a chance to push for answers, but only if you hire legal aid or understand the legal system enough to demand the right results.

Natasha's parents crowdfunded legal help, allowing them to argue for an Article 2 inquest, which they received. Many of the bereaved parents of Bristol students had a more narrow inquest, framed around statements rather than questions. After one of those, the case is closed and you're left with a simple verdict – the one you already knew. But the question still remains: why and how did this happen to my child?

natasha abrahart and her brother bristol student suicides
Natasha Abrahart and her brother.

Natasha had aimed for Oxford University, but got into Bristol, her second choice. She was determined, hard-working, bright. During school holidays, her parents would try to force her to take time off from studying, but she'd rebel, by studying. At some point in her teenage years, she started dressing in darker, neutral colours to hide her body. Her teachers would always say: Natasha is extremely gifted but doesn't speak out a lot in class. If there was a recital or a show-and-tell in class, sometimes she'd freeze and, for a moment, you wouldn’t know if she’d do it. But there were no "off days" in Natasha’s world.

When she went to university, as far as Bob and Maggie could tell, she was doing what she'd always done: working extremely hard, getting on with everything without asking for help. When I ask about the first time they heard of her mental health problems, they check each other's faces and say "the phone call". In March of 2018, Natasha's housemate called to tell them Natasha had been showing signs of extreme distress. Over the phone, Natasha then promised Maggie she'd see her GP.

When Natasha was home for Easter she seemed back to her normal self, if a little subdued. She angrily told her parents the name of someone from the university who she'd told about her issues (Bob and Maggie would later find out Natasha had told this faculty member that she was suicidal and had attempted to take her own life), and Maggie decided to continue with the "softly, softly" approach. The summer holidays were close, and the pair knew Natasha needed to pass her exams so she could concentrate on getting better, rather than studying for re-sits.

"Two weeks later, she was dead," Bob says bluntly. "After she died we went down and ID-ed the body the next day. We stopped off at the flat and collected all her belongings." In shock, they gathered what they could and, in among all her possessions, found her passwords, written down.

"Typical Natasha, so well-organised," says Maggie, shooting Bob a half-smile.

Bob had wondered if he should log into her email accounts to see what was going on.

"Would you?" he asks me. I answer "yes", quickly. "Yes, I did as well."

Bob found Natasha's student email ID on the family computer and was able to log into her account. Bob and Maggie found a thread of correspondence with the Bristol School of Physics, where Natasha had asked for help, explained she'd had suicidal thoughts and had attempted to take her own life. These messages dated back to February – a month before the phone call – and were sent to the student administrator Natasha had told her parents about. There was further communication with wellbeing advisors. Bob printed it all out, in case her account got shut down.

Readying themselves for the inquest, they found another key piece of information: the second-year Physics student was due to give an assessed oral presentation to just over 40 students and staff in a 329-seat lecture hall the day she was found dead. University members of staff had been aware of Natasha's severe anxiety around public speaking. No alterations to the task or provisions for help had been made. The university would later share a statement on their website regarding media reports of Natasha and the events leading to her death, writing that they "worked incredibly hard and diligently to help and support Natasha with her studies and her mental health needs".

In the many interviews and statements given by parents following their children’s deaths, they express surprise. They say, as Maggie, a trained mental health professional, says to me, "If I could think of the people I knew who might die by suicide, Natasha would never have been on that list."

natasha abrahart suicides

Around summer exam season in 2017, two ice cream vans drove outside one of the Bristol University libraries. Stories of deaths were circulating around campus, their heaviness felt among the student body. Some students ran down to queue for their free Whippy cones. Others watched on, cigarettes in hand, a sour taste in their mouths. "I know a lot of us were really offended by it," one student who was there that day told me. "It was like, kids are dying and you're giving us ice-cream? What's going on? It's nice, but it's not going to solve anything."

Even if these students hadn't struggled with poor mental health themselves, losing their peers took its toll. As one Law student who started at the university in 2016 said to me, "If I sound unfazed by the suicides, it's because it's happened so much since first year. As awful as it is, I'm used to it and have sort of become desensitised."

The Law student's second year at uni was the worst of her life – there were more deaths that academic year than the previous one. "Every time it would happen they'd send an email around if you were in the same department or halls with the person who'd died. It'd say something like, 'If you've been affected by it, reply to this email and we'll do our best to help,' or whatever."

Bristol is a somewhat unique institution. Students there are high-achieving, and worked hard, but don't have the same kind of support infrastructure Oxbridge provides to their students. At Oxford, for example, employment during your undergraduate years is only allowed with permission from your tutor, so you can focus on your studies, while financial aid is offered by the individual college if you need it. Tutors will meet frequently with you one-on-one to talk through work and personal issues. Pastoral care at Bristol, however, is structured similarly to that of any other British university: it is objectively hands-off.

Additionally, as one student told me, the party and drug scene at Bristol is all about "ket and MD and going out to [popular club] Motion". It's a party uni with an Oxbridge mentality and work ethic.

Bristol is not alone in its problems with student mental health. Since about half of 18-year-olds now choose to go to university, this problem reflects a wider mental health crisis for the age group. About one UK student dies every four days, and we now know that deaths happen disproportionately among freshers, who themselves are now disclosing their mental illness on application with far more frequency (up by 73 percent in the last four years). What these institutions all push back against – and what Bristol University referenced in various student death inquests – is that universities are educational bodies, not healthcare providers. They can't be expected or relied upon to pick up where the underfunded NHS is failing, and academics certainly can't stand in for therapists. That said, student wellbeing lies somewhat in their hands. The question is: how much?

To consider that, you have to start with student numbers. In 2015/16, the student fees cap was removed entirely by the Tory government, and student numbers at Bristol rose dramatically, by nearly 4,000 (22,333 students to 26,020). Students repeatedly told me their tutors didn’t know who they were, that meetings with tutors weren’t mandatory, that they’d flagged poor mental health with tutors and received a minimal response or signposted support.

Cris, a masters student at Bristol and a key mental health campaigner, said numbers had visibly increased year-on-year since the cap was lifted, and that the simultaneous rise of student numbers and poor student wellbeing is no coincidence. "With more students, it’s easier to fall between the cracks. Staff are less likely to notice you, and scheduling to see your tutor might only happen once a term." In a statement to VICE, Bristol University press office said, "The University has grown but we are still a relatively small institution and we have expanded staffing and space to respond to growth."

Ella, a 2018 graduate, told me she was off unwell for long periods of time. She says no one checked in on her. "I spoke to three or four different tutors in my first year and reached out and said: 'I'm finding this really tough; my mental health is suffering.' All of them asked if I was having suicidal thoughts and I told all of them that I was, and nothing was done." The university said in an email to VICE that they didn’t think it appropriate to fact check this with her tutors.

Annie* was familiar with two boys who died. I spoke to her just days after an international student at the halls killed himself. "You're at school and at every point you’re being watched, and then you go to uni and there's nothing," she says. She talks of Ben Murray, a fresher who went for lunch with his dad, then killed himself later that day. It would transpire through an inquest that he’d been unwell for some time, and not properly attending uni, only to receive a letter and an email saying he’d been kicked off his course and would have to leave his accommodation the following week.

"Surely if someone's missing university for two or three months you should be asking, 'Where are they?' rather than kicking them out," said Annie. "How is that going to make someone feel if no one from the university is checking up on them physically?"

The significance of a tower block had never occurred to Diana Thomson, until her counsellor mentioned that "they can be very isolating". No, Diana told her counsellor, she and her son James had never lived in one. In hindsight, Diana realised that, for James, moving from a decent housing estate in Northampton to a tower block, miles from home, at the age 18, might have been a shock to the system.

"It wasn't the accommodation they show you on the open day," Diana told me over the phone in May of 2019. The accommodation her second-year Bristol University student son had been in months before he died by suicide, after developing depression, has now been condemned because it was covered in the same cladding as Grenfell Tower. But Diana will never know if living in the tower block had been troubling him – she never found any concrete answers as to why he died.

After James' death, Diana asked the university which lectures he’d been missing. She says the head of student services told her in person that they didn't know because no such register was held. She questioned this, but says they told her if students missed a lecture they could just view it online. The university confirmed that a conversation was vaguely remembered by the member of staff in question and that it's true the university "does not routinely record a register of attendance for each student at each lecture". Personal tutors, Diana learned, were contactable by email and during office hours rather than on a compulsory basis.

"That's the sum total of adult contact they have," she told me. "There’s no tutorial with someone once a week or fortnight where somebody might pull them up on why haven’t they attended or if they’re struggling and why. They’re just on their own, together." Diana describes scenes of James' lectures that are corroborated by conversations I've had with students – lecture halls so packed that students sit on the floor at the front or leave altogether. "You question what you’re paying money for," she said.

One thing Diana did find out after his death, in vague detail, was that James had attempted suicide the previous year, while he was in those tower block halls. Diana has no idea how much of this the university knew. She didn’t employ legal help. As a pilates instructor from Northampton with two other sons to support, she couldn't afford to, so when the inquest into her son’s death came up, it was, unlike Natasha’s, a read-only. The coroner would read from reports, and no witnesses would attend. "No one was going to answer the questions I wanted answered," she said. They read out the verdict of suicide, and the Thomson family – like the vast majority of the families involved in these cases – went home to grieve.

"If I'd have employed barristers and demanded this and demanded that, at the end of the day it’s not going to bring my son back," she said. We can come up with all sorts of reasons as to why, but the bottom line is: nobody knows apart from James. There was no letter, there was no note, there was nothing."

Before we got off the phone, she told me of losing a child, "When it happens it’s so unexpected, and you think it’s never going to happen to anyone else, so you just want to tell the world so that it doesn't happen to anyone else. But having done my best to tell the world, it’s still happening. James was number seven, and I can’t remember now what number we’re on."

Bob Maggie Abrahart Natalie Bristol University death

When Natasha’s inquest date came around this summer, it confirmed her family's fears: that a series of failures by mental health services had contributed to her death. At the time, her parents said: "Natasha’s social anxiety resulted in a six-month struggle with oral assessments at the University of Bristol. Her anxiety forced her to avoid most of these – for which the University docked her marks. As a result our bright, capable daughter faced failing academically for the first time in her life."

The last time I spoke with the Abraharts, they told me they were planning to sue the university, an unprecedented move in the UK.

At some point, universities have to investigate independently why this is happening and how to make a genuine and meaningful difference. Ben Murray's dad, James, had suggested that data be pulled from various existing records – academic struggles, reported health concerns, library access – and staff should pull students in to speak with them, to see if anything is wrong. Further suggestions from Murray also pressed Bristol to introduce an opt-in scheme for students that allows the university to contact parents if students are suffering with mental health problems. When the Bristol student body was asked if they wanted this scheme launched for the academic year starting 2018, 94 percent opted-in. In its first year in action, Bristol University used its new powers to alert the parents of 36 students. Other universities are currently considering this approach.

One of campaigner Cris' key wins in negotiating more support for students arose from a meeting with the university, where they promised to start speaking to students before suspending them. Ben Murray was impacted by this previous "fitness-for-study" policy when he was dismissed from the university with a letter, rather than a face-to-face conversation. This was confirmed in a statement to VICE from the university.

Professor Sarah Purdy, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Student Experience at the University of Bristol, told VICE, "Mental health is fast emerging as the single biggest public health issue affecting young people today. The scale of the challenges means all universities must re-evaluate every aspect of their student and staff mental health and wellbeing support and provision. Here in Bristol, we have reviewed everything we do… In terms of pastoral care, Bristol now offers more support and services than almost any other university."

Universities running as businesses may now fail to tap into a more holistic approach to their roles in the lives of increasingly stressed and cash-poor students. "Students are, in my anecdotal experience, really worried about letting people down," Dr Dominique Thompson, a student mental health expert, tells me on the phone. "They hate to feel they have let down their parents and their loved ones. That can lead them to take desperate measures, which is just dreadful. If we can get across the message to them – either as support staff, or as professionals, academics and as parents and as a society – that they’re not letting anyone down, then we will be making real progress in changing the way the system is at the moment.”

What’s important is that students know they aren’t alone. Dr Thompson advises parents to tell their children: there is nothing you could do or say that I don’t want to hear about or talk about. Whether it’s getting kicked out of university or failing classes, I want to talk about it.

Before I leave Maggie and Bob’s home, we all take a final look at the left side of the living room. Along with the photos of Natasha are toys and trinkets, from the expensive to the silly but more valuable. One of these is a big plushie dragon. "I got it for her first birthday," laughs Bob. "It was bigger than her and she just kept getting bigger. He came to the funeral, he was on the coffin."

"I don’t think she actually particularly liked him, you know," says Maggie.

"Well, I went in there on my own into the toy shop, went looking for a fluffy, cuddly thing... and I came out with that. I didn’t know what I was doing," replies Bob, suddenly sounding like a hopeless first time dad.

Next to the dragon, on a tray of assorted mementos, is a plastic Oscar award. Maggie couldn’t remember what their daughter had won it for, so she looked through their belongings for an answer. It was a Year 11 prize Natasha had won for "Most Likely to Rule the World".

@hannahrosewens / @bekkylonsdalephoto

If you or anyone you know have been affected by the issues raised in this story, please use the following resources for help and support. In the UK and Ireland, the Samaritans phone lines are open 24/7, at 116 123. In the US, if you're in crisis, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.