University processes must change, say Natasha Abrahart’s parents

Helping students is not just about securing more counsellors and money for mental health support, according to bereaved family

June 6, 2022
Source: Andrew Fox/The Sunday Times/News Licensing

UK universities need to understand that helping students with mental health issues is not just about funding counsellors and support services but also about reforming practices that may be discriminatory, according to the parents of a University of Bristol student who won a landmark court ruling over her death.

Robert and Margaret Abrahart, who were awarded £50,000 in damages after a judge ruled that the university had breached its duties to their daughter Natasha by failing to adjust its assessments, said they did not expect the university to cure her mental health issues but rather to ensure a level playing field so she could participate in the course.

They have called for better training for staff and more sector-wide awareness of what the Equality Act entails to prevent similar tragic cases in future.

“It’s not just at Bristol; I see no evidence of anyone up to this point bothering to learn anything from Natasha’s death,” Dr Abrahart, a retired university lecturer, told Times Higher Education.

“They have been arguing exactly the wrong thing. Natasha didn’t die because of a lack of investment or counsellors – or even information sharing with parents – it was a failure of internal processes. Things that should never have happened in the first place.”

In the aftermath of the ruling, Universities UK pointed out that it had called on the government “to provide urgent additional mental health funding for universities”, but the Abraharts, who have started a campaign group with other bereaved parents, argue that the measures they wanted would not have cost much money.

“It’s not just about providing more money to look after people’s mental health. They need to make sure their systems and practices are safe and robust and support people with mental health problems without putting them under excessive stress,” said Ms Abrahart.

Physics student Natasha, 20, took her own life in April 2018 after what her father described as a period of “unnecessary psychological trauma” caused by the university’s failure to make adjustments to the oral assessments students were expected to complete as part of a laboratory module. On the day she died, Natasha had been due to give a formal presentation to fellow students in a 329-seat lecture theatre but suffered from anxiety and panic attacks that made this almost impossible.

Bristol knew that Natasha had difficulties with oral assessments, but the judge found that “whilst a few ideas” regarding possible adjustments were “floated” by the university, “none were implemented”.

Bristol had tried to argue that an ability to explain and justify experimental work orally was a “core competency of a professional scientist”, but this defence was again rejected by the judge, who found that there were other ways of assessing her ability to understand the experiments that did not require face-to-face interaction.

Gus Silverman, an associate solicitor with Irwin Mitchell who represented the couple, said Bristol had got it wrong by being “very focused on needing the right form, the green light, and they weren’t thinking creatively or really with any common sense about what they needed to do in order to remove this substantial disadvantage”.

Colm O’Cinneide, professor of human rights law at UCL, said the case would have been followed closely by those in higher education because it could result in more claims, while also raising questions about changes that will have to be made to assessments, how much variation will be required and what this means for established practices and bureaucracy.

At the time of the ruling, Bristol said that staff had worked to support Natasha and offer her alternative options for assessment. It was “reviewing the decision carefully, including whether to appeal”, a spokesperson said.

tom.williams@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Change university processes for mental health, say parents

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