In April 2018, Bristol University student Natasha Abrahart took her life after suffering from social anxiety and the resulting pressure she felt when required to do a presentation as part of her degree.
Her parents, Margaret and Robert Abrahart, took legal action against the university. They believed that Bristol had failed in its duty to make adjustments to the assessment process that would have helped her. Last week, Judge Alex Ralton agreed: “There can be no doubt that there was direct discrimination, especially once the university knew or should have known that a mental health disability of some sort was preventing Natasha from performing.”
Responding to the judgement, Bristol released a statement asserting they had offered Natasha “alternative options for assessment”. They appear to be in denial about how their assessment process contributed to the extreme stress that Natasha experienced.
Although this case centred on Bristol University, the judgement will have implications for all universities and the way they treat students with mental health problems. The sector has been slow to move beyond saying the right thing to actually doing something practical for these students.
Viewed from the outside, it can seem as though universities do have procedures in place to support students with mental health problems. Unfortunately, too many don’t actually implement the practical aspects of the policies they have in place.
This isn’t helped by a wider view of social anxiety which is often dismissed as “shyness”, the inference being that this is simply a character trait that can be overcome by “coming out of your shell”. Nothing could be further from the truth for people struggling with the condition. It is difficult to imagine the level of stress and thinking that brings a young person like Natasha to the point where they believe the only option they have is death.
Some individuals and institutions seem to find it difficult to view mental health problems in the same way as physical problems. They wouldn’t consider asking someone in a wheelchair to get to the third floor of a building without access to a lift.
In the absence of a physical cue such as a wheelchair or a bandage, unseen mental health problems are hidden, meaning they are ignored or minimised. Not least because they can fluctuate, with good days and bad which affect individual ability and their visibility to others.
From the evidence given, Natasha clearly had a severe form of social anxiety that had a constant impact on her ability to talk to others on a one-to-one basis – let alone standing up in front of an audience to make an oral presentation which she would also be assessed on.
What’s really worrying is that Natasha didn’t hide her problems; she courageously shared the deterioration in her mental health with university staff. While there was evidence of a discussion about what could be done to support her and make the necessary adjustments to the assessment, these weren’t put in place.
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This highlights something that happens all too often in higher education – there is a chasm between policy and practice. Policies are easy to produce but take time and investment to implement. It was this gap that tragically failed Natasha.
Most university staff in contact with students will want to do the right thing and ensure support is available. While this is an important starting point, training and experience are critical to ensure timely and effective help is available. Bristol, like many other universities, not only assumed a policy and discussion were sufficient, but also wrongly assumed staff knew what to do.
To be clear, this is not a failure of individual staff – as Natasha’s parents were keen to emphasise. It was an institutional failure. In many ways, this reflects a wider societal problem when it comes to taking mental health problems seriously. It’s not just attitudes that need to change, we all need to accept that investment in training and services is essential if we are to avoid more students dying prematurely.
Words and platitudes are no substitute for investment in skilled staff and support services. The test of this judgement and how the higher education sector responds will be found in their balance sheets, not their policies or corporate statements.
Ian Hamilton is a senior lecturer in addiction and mental health at the University of York