Natasha Abrahart: University of Bristol failings led to death of vulnerable student, judge rules

‘Today, we finally have the truth,’ said her parents

A catalogue of failings by the University of Bristol led to the death of a vulnerable student who tragically took her own life the night befores she was due to give a presentation, a judge has ruled.

Natasha Abrahart’s body was found in her private flat on April 30 2018- the day she was due to give the presentation to fellow students and staff in a 329-seat lecture theatre.

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The second-year physics student had been diagnosed with chronic Social Anxiety Disorder in February 2018.

Natasha Abrahart, 20, was found dead in her flat the day before she was due to give a presentation to fellow students and staff at the University of Bristol.

Natasha, was who originally from Nottingham, had been a high-achieving student until her second year at university.

In October 2017 academic staff became aware that the 20-year-old was struggling and experiencing anxiety and panic attacks in relation to oral assessments that formed part of a laboratory module.

In February 2018 a university employee received an email from Natasha’s account saying “I’ve been having suicidal thoughts and to a certain degree attempted it”.

Natasha’s parents, Robert and Margaret Abrahart aged 66 and 60, decided to challenge the University’s role in Natasha’s death.

The trial was heard over five days in March 2022, during which the University denied breaching any duties to Natasha.

The family’s lawyers Irwin Mitchell argued that the University breached the Equality Act 2010 when it failed to adjust its regime of oral assessments in light of Natasha’s social anxiety disorder. 

These breaches, the family’s lawyers argued, caused a deterioration in Natasha’s mental health - leading to her death.

What the judge said

In a 46-page written judgment issued today (Friday, May 20) at Bristol County Court His Honour Judge Alex Ralton found that the University had ‘breached its duties to make reasonable adjustments to the way it assessed Natasha’.

It also ‘engaged in indirect disability discrimination against Natasha; and treated Natasha unfavourably because of the consequences of her disability’.

The case was heard at Bristol County Court.

Judge Ralton found that these breaches led to her death, noting that “it was accepted by the medical experts that the primary stressor and cause of Natasha’s depressive illness was oral assessment.”

After finding that Natasha’s suffering was ‘serious and, from what I have seen in the evidence, continuous’ the Judge ordered the University to pay damages of £50,518.

This reflected the injury to Natasha’s feelings, the deterioration in her mental health caused by the University, along with funeral costs.

What Natasha’s parents said

Natasha’s father Robert Abrahart, a retired university lecturer, said: “Today, 1481 days after Natasha took her own life on the day of an assessment she simply couldn’t do, after years of protestations from the University that it did all it could to support her, after having battled our way through an inquest and a civil trial, we finally have the truth.

“The University of Bristol broke the law and exposed our daughter to months of wholly unnecessary psychological trauma, as she watched her grades plummet, and her hopes for the future crumble before her eyes.”

Natasha with her parents Robert and Margaret, who say they want ‘lessons to be learnt’ in the wake of their daughter’s suicide.

Natasha’s mother Margaret Abrahart, a retired psychological wellbeing practitioner, said she hoped the University would ‘take it head out of the sand’ and recognise ‘that now is the time for change’.

She added: “We are ready to work with them to help ensure that the failings which led to Natasha’s death aren’t repeated so other families don’t have to suffer as we have suffered. 

“We hope they will apologise for the role they played in Natasha’s death and will take us up on our offer of help.”

What the University of Bristol said

A University of Bristol spokesperson said that the ‘whole university community’ had been ‘deeply affected by Natasha’s tragic death’ and the institution extended its sympathies to her friends and family.

“Like all universities, schools and colleges, we are deeply concerned by the increase of mental health issues amongst our young people nationally,” the spokesperson added:

“We do our very best to support any student who is struggling with their mental health and have a wide range of services available.

“We believe staff in the School of Physics worked incredibly hard and diligently to support Natasha during her time with us, and it was due to their efforts that she was receiving specialist mental health support from the NHS.

“Our staff’s efforts also included offering alternative options for Natasha’s assessments to alleviate the anxiety she faced about presenting her laboratory findings to her peers.

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“We are very grateful to them for their endeavours on Natasha’s behalf and for their unwavering commitment to our students.

“Alongside the support available, we have introduced an opt-in policy to alert a nominated contact when we have serious concerns about a student’s wellbeing and more robust procedures to assess students’ fitness to study.

“However, it is important that students receive appropriate specialist care under the NHS should they need it.

“We cannot replicate the NHS but are committed to working with the NHS and other partners to improve services and ensure we are collectively providing the best possible support for students.

Natasha with her mother, Margaret.

“Given the significant impact this decision could have on how all higher education providers support their students, we are reviewing the decision carefully, including whether to appeal. In light of that review, it would not be appropriate to comment further on the judgment at the present time.”

Health Trust admitted ‘missed opportunities’ in Natasha’s care

An inquest into Natasha’s death was heard before the Senior Coroner for Avon between 7 and 16 May 2019, and found the cause of death to be suicide contributed to by neglect on the part of the Avon and Wiltshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust.

The Coroner had earlier ruled that the adequacy of support provided to Natasha by the University of Bristol was outside of the scope of her inquest.

The court heard that Natasha had been an incredibly gifted student but ‘shy from a young age’.

In May 2019 Natasha’s family settled claims against the mental health trust. 

The Trust admitted that it missed opportunities to provide Natasha with “an enhanced and more assertive level of care” but denied causing her death.