University student died after mental health declined, inquest hears

An undergraduate died after his mental health declined during lockdown after becoming worried about his family’s financial future and failing some of his university exams, an inquest heard.

Harry Armstrong Evans, 21, a third year physics and astrophysics student at the University of Exeter, died in June 2021 .

Cornwall Coroner’s Court heard Mr Armstrong Evans, from Launceston, had been struggling with his mental health and was concerned about passing his degree following disappointing module results in the January.

His personal tutor, Professor Matthew Browning, told the inquest the first time he was aware of Mr Armstrong Evans’s personal difficulties was in May when he received emails from him and his mother.

“It latterly became apparent from Harry’s email to me in May 2021 that he was going through challenging personal circumstance but unlike some other students he never raised these with me before this point,” Prof Browning said.

The court heard Armstrong Evans’s results in his first two years of modules ranged from 52% to 92%.

But then, in his third year, his marks tailed off, with him attaining scores of between 19% and 53% in four of his papers and not sitting a fifth, which Prof Browning agreed was “falling off a cliff edge”.

He added: “It’s not usual but it is not unprecedented. He was very well aware that he had done very poorly in his exams.”

Prof Browning said he was discussing with Mr Armstrong Evans his options for deferring or resitting his exams and he was also considering a postgraduate course.

In the May, Mr Armstrong Evans’s mother, Alice, emailed Prof Browning to disclose the family were undergoing financial problems.

Prof Browning said in response he alerted the university’s welfare team.

“I tried at all times to support Harry to the best of my ability,” he said.

“To his mother, I tried to respond as fully and as compassionately as possible given the information and concerns for Harry provided by her without breaking any rules about what I could say.

“In all Harry’s prior personal interactions with me and in all our correspondence together, nothing had led me to flag concerns about his well-being prior to May 2021.

“Harry was an adult and as a matter of policy I am expressly forbidden from talking about him without his express and explicit written consent.

“It’s a very difficult issue. There is a tension between respecting the student’s autonomy as an adult and their desire and right to privacy and my own inclination as a parent.

“I would want to know if it was my kid but my understanding is that it very clearly had not risen to those exceptional circumstances.

“I still think that was still the right call. I have thought about that many times.”

In May last year, Mr Armstrong Evans emailed Prof Browning and the welfare team about his isolation during lockdown and his declining mental health.

“I am a quiet person so writing to you and the welfare office does not come easily to me but I understand I am running out of time to speak up,” he wrote.

“I wanted to inform you that I had significant personal problems which recently became significantly worse in the run-up to the January exams.

“My Dad lost a court case just before Christmas leaving my family with a huge amount owed in court fees.

“Our financial situation is impossible and there is a real chance we will lose our home where I live with my parents and younger sister.

“Beyond this I have found the last year during the pandemic to be incredibly difficult. I know this has been the case for many people, but I have spent so much time in isolated by myself in my flat with almost no human contact it really has had an adverse effect on my mental health.

“I found it almost impossible to focus on the revision and the university in general when I have been worried about my family and spending an uncomfortable amount of time on my own worrying about Covid-19.

“I really struggled to think straight, and the exams were a horrible culmination of my stresses as I hadn’t been able to prepare properly and I found myself very isolated in the middle of winter and very worrying about lots of other things, as well as the exams themselves.”

Mr Armstrong Evans also expressed his concerns at his resits being capped at 40% and thought it might be lifted in the circumstances.

“I worked really hard for this degree and the thought of not achieving for reasons beyond my control is incredibly upsetting,” he wrote.

“I am copying in the welfare department as I assume they might be the right people to speak to about the mental health and personal problems side.”

Prof Browning was asked whether he thought this email should have treated as a “red flag” and he replied: “I didn’t think it is quite at that level. I was aware this was also going directly to the wellbeing team and that was their area of professional competence.”

The inquest heard that no one from the welfare team telephoned Mr Armstrong Evans after his exam results – even after a request from his mother.

Prof Browning replied: “My own interactions with Harry… I was seeing him in person following his exam results and he was a very good attendee at tutorials, and we talked about things.

“At every tutorial, I start by asking how their week was. Sometimes students talk to me and sometimes they don’t.”

Mr Armstrong Evans’s head of department, Professor Tim Harries, referenced new Universities UK recommendations for institutions be more proactive in preventing suicides among students.

He said: “I think with the announcement of new guidelines flagging up serious concerns, this is a debate that happens.

“Is the fact that Harry’s academic performance had fallen a serious concern?

“Roughly speaking he had passed half the stuff and failed half the stuff. Is that something that is serious or not?

“I think that is a debate that is going to happen.”

He added: “All I can say is this was an absolute tragedy and with every student in our department we try and provide the best support we can.”

Mr Armstrong Evans was found dead at the family home on June 24 last year.

He died from asphyxiation, a post-mortem examination found.

The inquest was adjourned until Friday.