Exeter University student died after his mental health declined during lockdown

Harry Armstrong Evans
Harry was a student at University of Exeter

A University of Exeter student had alerted academic staff that he was struggling with his mental health during lockdown before he took his own life, an inquest heard.

Harry Armstrong-Evans, a 21-year-old student from Launceston died at home on 24th June 2021.

He had been a third-year student of Physics and Astrophysics.

The coroners inquest in Truro heard how Harry had emailed his tutor on 28th May 2021 expressing concerns about his January exam results.

In an email to Professor Matthew Browning which was read out at the hearing, Harry had written: "I’ve found the last year during the pandemic to be incredibly difficult. I know this is the case for many people, but I've spent so much time isolated by myself in my flat with almost no human contact.

"It really has had an adverse effect on my mental health. I have found it almost impossible to focus on revision and university in general when I’ve been worried about my family and have been spending an uncomfortable amount of time alone worrying about Covid-19. I really struggled to think straight and the exams for me were a horrible culmination of my stresses."

In the email Harry had also described how he had been worried about his family’s financial problems and his concerns that "there is a real chance we will lose our home."

Harry Armstrong Evans

In the email Harry had asked his tutor about re-taking exams and how his grades would be affected.

He wrote: "I’ve worked really hard for this degree and gained so much from it. The thought of not achieving what I should be able to for reasons beyond my control is incredibly upsetting."

The inquest heard that the emails had been referred to the University of Exeter’s wellbeing department, and that it had responded. But, it emerged no member of academic or welfare staff had spoken to Harry by phone or in person since his email in May, before his death a month later.

Harry’s tutor Professor Browning told the inquest that as an academic and pastoral tutor he had read the university's online material on supporting the welfare of students "many times", but that there was no specific suicide prevention training for academic staff. 

The inquest heard Harry’s mother Alice had also been in touch with the university following their son's efforts to reach out to his tutor, telling Professor Browning that she was "frankly worried about Harry."

Assistant Coroner for Cornwall, Guy Davies, asked the Head of the Physics and Astronomy Department at the University of Exeter, Professor James Harries, "How are you supposed to gauge the state of someone’s mental health without actually speaking to him?"

In response Professor Harries told the inquest: "I believe Harry was offered an opportunity to speak to wellbeing which he didn’t take up, which I think is profoundly sad, but there should have been contact, clearly that would have been the best outcome."

Professor Harries went on to say that Harry would have had 22 in person meetings with his tutor during the year, and that email and Microsoft Teams were the main channels of communication between staff and students. He told the hearing "I would defend our tutorial system, it’s a real cornerstone of our programmes and probably is the gold standard."

Prior to the inquest Harry’s parents Rupert and Alice Armstrong Evans had already launched a campaign for the government to pass new legislation known as Harry’s Law. 

It would require coroners courts to inform higher education institutions when the suicide of an enrolled student is registered, and require universities to keep a record of student suicide. It would also legislate that universities do provide a ‘duty of care’ to all undergraduate students.

Today Universities UK (UUK), in partnership with PAPYRUS Prevention of Young Suicide, announced it was publishing recommendations calling on universities to be more proactive in preventing student suicides. It says the new guidance sets out how and when universities should involve families, carers and trusted others when there are serious concerns about the safety or mental health of a student.

The guidance is the first time a consistent practice has been proposed for the sector. 

Commenting separately to the inquest, Harry’s parents described the recommendations as ‘’a small step in the right direction’’.

The inquest continues and is due to conclude on Friday 7th October.