Parents of student who died in suicide over anxiety attacks to sue Bristol University

Jane Dalton

The parents of a student who took her own life because she was too anxious to make a public presentation are taking legal action against her university.

Natasha Abrahart, 20, who was studying physics at the University of Bristol, had been due to have an oral assessment on the day she was found dead last year.

She had told tutors she suffered anxiety and panic attacks over the oral presentations, and had been prescribed an antidepressant.

Robert and Margaret Abrahart say their daughter was terrified of being kicked out of the university because her anxiety forced her to avoid oral exams, for which she was docked marks.

“As a result our bright, capable daughter faced failing academically for the first time in her life,” the couple said in a statement to her inquest.

They believe Bristol University staff should have allowed her work to be assessed without her having to face a public verbal exam.

“We are taking the legal action because Bristol are not listening to us. They do not accept there is a problem,” Mr Abrahart, a retired university associate professor, told The Sunday Times.

Ms Abrahart was the tenth of 12 students to take their own life at the University of Bristol since October 2016.

Her social anxiety was so severe that she could not bear to give a presentation to fellow students and staff in a lecture theatre as part of her degree.

A senior lecturer told the inquest no changes had been made to Ms Abrahart’s planned oral assessment.

Her parents say the university should have known her condition made it excruciatingly difficult for her to talk in front of other people and that it had six months to make other arrangements.

The inquest ruled she died partly as a result of neglect by mental health services after there were delays in her being seen and her medication was not properly reviewed.

The coroner found a “gross failure” to provide care by Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust, which “significantly underestimated” her condition.

Mr and Mrs Abrahart said the trust had not apologised but had paid damages.

Julie Kerry, director of nursing at the trust, said: “We are deeply sorry for Natasha’s death and... offer our sincere condolences to her family.

“We fully accept the findings of the coroner, and recognise that we did not act in accordance to best practice in all of the care provided to Natasha.”

A university spokeswoman said: “Staff tried very hard to help Natasha, both with her studies and with her mental health needs. This was acknowledged in the inquest, with the coroner finding no fault with the university.”

And a statement said staff were “very sad that these efforts could not help prevent her tragic death".

It added: “We have introduced a whole-institution approach to mental health and wellbeing with additional investment in the support we provide our students in their accommodation, in academic schools and through central support services.”

Margaret Abrahart said: “I get really angry when they give these bland statements claiming they did everything they could to help. It doesn’t tally with what we’ve heard.

“It’s almost as though the death of a student, the life of a student doesn’t matter. It’s more important that they portray the right image.”