Parents push for “Harry’s Law” legislation after death of Exeter student
The parents of an Exeter student who died after taking his own life following third-year exams last year are pushing for new legislation which would require universities to publish the annual suicide rate of their institution.
Harry Armstrong Evans was 21 when he died in June 2021 after struggling with mental health whilst isolating during lockdown and subsequently failing third-year exams. An inquest into his death has revealed that there have been eleven suspected suicides in the last six years at Exeter, including from the same department as Armstrong Evans, Physics and Astrophysics. His parents have raised concerns over the lack of action taken by both academic staff and welfare services in not reaching out to Armstrong Evans.
Armstrong Evans informed his tutor over email that isolation had negatively affected his mental health and exam performance, but was not contacted face to face subsequent to the email, nor informed of his options to re-take exams or repeat the year. He wrote, “I have been in isolation in my virtually empty hall of residence”, adding that “It really has had an adverse effect on my mental health. I really struggled to think straight and the exams for me were a horrible culmination of my stresses.” Speaking to the inquest, his tutor said that he did not feel the student’s concerns were “exceptional” and so did not contact his parents, adding that he did not receive formal guidance on spotting “red flags” and no training on suicide prevention.
Armstrong Evans’ mother, Alice, addressed the head of department, Tim Harries, stating Harry should have been contacted and told of his options, adding “If Harry had all that knowledge, he would have felt wanted. I blame the academic staff. I blame welfare too.” Concerns have been raised too over the role of welfare services, after it was revealed an IT error meant even though Alice Armstrong Evans contacted welfare on the behalf of her son, they didn’t reach out. Alice Armstrong Evans called Exeter’s wellbeing services detailing her concerns.
If Harry had all that knowledge, he would have felt wanted. I blame the academic staff. I blame welfare tooAlice Armstrong Evans
However, Mark Sawyer, head of wellbeing and welfare services, stated that though the referrals were passed to a welfare practitioner, issues with the case management system meant the logs were closed when the admin team asked for further information. He said after being asked to attach a referral, “because of the technicalities and the challenges we face in utilising various aspects of the case management system, the practitioner utilised the wrong function to ask that question.” This meant the inquiry was closed. A similar technical difficulty meant Armstrong Evans’ second voicemail later that month, was similarly closed. Sawyer stated, “The university is willing to look at a different case record management system so that we can really not have these issues from the technicalities associated with the current system.”
Alice Armstrong Evans told the inquest that her “faith in the statement someone would be in touch with him” was now “the biggest mistake of our lives”, adding that if he had been offered support “my beautiful, kind, clever much-loved son would still be alive with a future to look forward to.” Harry’s parents have accused the University of shortcomings and are now pushing for the government to adopt “Harry’s Law”, under which universities would publish their annual suicide rates, with the Department for Education (DfE) given powers to investigate institutions where the suicide rate is above average, as well as introducing mandatory mental health awareness training for academic tutors.
Alice Armstrong Evans told the inquest that her “faith in the statement someone would be in touch with him” was now “the biggest mistake of our lives”
A University of Exeter spokesperson said, “We are deeply saddened by Harry’s death and the family’s loss. The University is fully engaged with the Coroner’s inquest which will report the facts and it would be completely inappropriate to comment further until the inquest has concluded. We can say however, that we have invested significantly in student welfare and wellbeing support in recent years and we are acutely aware of the current mental health challenges for young people. We provide support services seven days a week both on campus and in the community, including throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic all students were supported with a no disadvantage guarantee to ensure their assessment marks didn’t suffer as a result of the difficult circumstances surrounding the pandemic. Student health and wellbeing is always the University of Exeter’s top priority.”
A Guild spokesperson stated “The Guild have a dedicated Advice team who support students on a range of topics. One area includes assisting students to access the information and services they need to stay safe and manage their physical and mental health and wellbeing. At present, we do not feel equipped to comment on ‘Harry’s Law’. However, we encourage and support continued improvements to provisions that support students’ wellbeing and work closely with the University on this. If you have been impacted by this or need to seek wellbeing support for any other reasons, we encourage you to reach out to the University Wellbeing services or our Advice Team.”