A coroner has strongly criticised the University of Exeter over the suicide of a student, claiming it failed to respond effectively to his “cry for help” after a disastrous set of exam results that followed months of isolation in near-empty halls of residence during the pandemic.
Guy Davies, the assistant coroner for Cornwall, concluded that Harry Armstrong Evans’s death was due to a mental health crisis preceded by a “catalogue of missed opportunities coupled with systems failings”, leaving him without the “safety net” the Russell Group university should have provided.
Less than a month before he was found dead, Armstrong Evans, 21, told his tutor in an email that isolation caused by Covid had affected his mental health and his performance in his third-year physics and astrophysics exams.
The coroner said this was a cry for help but it did not lead to any direct engagement between the university and Armstrong Evans or his parents.
Davies said: “This court has heard evidence of the terrible consequences of academic pressures on students and the need for universities to provide a safety net … in Harry’s case the safety net did not operate.”
He said he would send a report to the university as part of his duty to flag up findings that could prevent future deaths.
This would include concerns about training on mental health issues, whether a computer system used by welfare services was “fit for purpose” and how information about students was shared.
Outside the court, Armstrong Evans’s family described him as “beautiful, kind and intelligent”, adding: “His passing is made all the more tragic because it was entirely avoidable.”
Alice and Rupert Armstrong Evans, are campaigning for the government to adopt what they are calling “Harry’s law”, under which universities would have to publish their annual student suicide rate.
in Truro, Armstrong Evans was described as a diligent student but in January 2021 he had a “disastrous” set of results.
His family were not told about his results but became alarmed at his state of mind and in May 2021 – the month before he died – Alice
Armstrong Evans twice called the university’s wellbeing team expressing concerns.
On both occasions staff pressed a button accidentally closing the case.
On 28 May, Armstrong Evans sent an email to his academic and pastoral tutor, and the welfare team, explaining that isolation during the pandemic, along with family difficulties, had affected his mental health.
By the time Armstrong Evans was found dead at the family home near Launceston, Cornwall, on 24 June 2021 neither academic staff nor members of the welfare team had actually spoken to him.
University of Exeter, said: “We continually review and improve the wellbeing support we provide based on evidence and learnings, including from tragic cases such as Harry’s.
We will consider the coroner’s detailed conclusions in this case and make sure we learn the lessons.”