Mum’s concerns for son missed due to IT failure, inquest hears

Harry Armstrong Evans
Harry Armstrong-Evans was found dead in June last year, having taken his own life

A worried mum's pleas for a university to help her son were never replied to because of an IT failure, an inquest has heard.

Harry Armstrong-Evans, 21, was found dead at his home in Launceston in June last year, having taken his own life.

An inquest being held into his death at Cornwall Coroner’s Court has heard his mental health declined during lockdown.

His mother, Alice Armstrong Evans, was so worried about her son Harry that she tried to speak with the University of Exeter’s wellbeing service.

She explained the third-year physics and astrophysics undergraduate had been concerned about passing his degree following disappointing module results.

He was also anxious about his family’s finances with fears they would lose their home after his father lost a court case and faced legal bills.

Mark Sawyer, head of wellbeing and welfare services at the University of Exeter, told the inquest today (7 October) the referrals were passed to a welfare practitioner to respond.

But, due to issues with the case management system, the logs were closed when they replied to the admin team asking for further information.

Harry had alerted academic staff that he was struggling with his mental health during lockdown before he took his own life

“What happened in this case, the voicemail message was put in a particular area of our case note system and the welfare team were advised of a referral through our inquiry system,” Mr Sawyer said.

“Unfortunately, the voicemail could not be attached to the inquiry which went to our welfare practitioners which said: ‘Please find attached a referral.’

“What happened at this point was the practitioner wrote back (to) the administrative team who had sent over the inquiry and said: ‘Where’s the referral?’

“But the practitioner, 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.

“They did it as answering the inquiry and the way that was answered unbeknown to the practitioner was to close down the inquiry, and when it went back to the administrative team, they saw the inquiry was closed and therefore the issue was not picked up that there was a request for further information.”

Mrs Armstrong Evans made a second call to the service later that month and was passed to a welfare practitioner to respond to out-of-hours.

The inquest heard Mrs Armstrong Evans had only left her daytime contact details and when the practitioner replied to the admin staff asking for an alternative phone number, the log was closed.

“Because of these technical challenges about which button you press in the system, now we have become alerted to that, we have put in a completely different system for tracking student wellbeing inquiries,” Mr Sawyer said.

“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.”

Asked if this was as a result of Mr Armstrong Evans’ death, Mr Sawyer replied: “It is very much so, and as a result of a recognition of an issue that was not clear, and I think the challenge for practitioners is that practitioners use certain parts of the system and administrators use a different part and it is quite difficult to understand both sides of the system.”

The student later emailed his personal tutor and the wellbeing service expressing concerns about his isolation during lockdown, his declining mental health and worries about his exams.

Mr Sawyer said there was nothing in the email to indicate Mr Armstrong Evans was in a crisis and required an immediate response.

“There were no obvious red flags to any of us at that time in May,” he said.

Mr Armstrong Evans’s father, Rupert, asked Mr Sawyer whether he thought the university owed his son duty of care.

Mr Sawyer replied: “It is very hard for the university to manage the expectations upon it and its capacity to really deliver care in what I understand to be the meaning of ‘duty of care’.

“In many ways we accept a limited and voluntary responsibility to signpost students when risk becomes apparent.

“If red flags come in then we are not really there as an education institution to directly assess and provide effective monitoring and risk management.

“We try very hard on the information we have to give good advice to students around signposting.

“What was apparent to us in this whole tragic case was that at no point did any of us recognise or notice any red flags for Harry’s safety.

“In many ways from what I could see in the evidence bundle we were all unable to notice any red flags.”

Mr Armstrong Evans asked: “Do you now accept there may be a lot of students who maybe in trouble who simply don’t reach out?

“I would say in Harry’s case his only sin was that he was shy or embarrassed to ask for help.”

Mr Sawyer replied: “Our heartfelt sympathies and the loss of any student in our community is enormously devastating for staff and students and we can only imagine what it is like for yourselves.”

He said the university tried to make services as accessible as possible to students.