A 21-year-old student at the University of Exeter believed to have taken his own life after a poor set of exam results had told his tutor he had felt horribly isolated by the pandemic and the lack of human contact had affected his mental health, an inquest has heard.
Harry Armstrong Evans, who was in the third year of a physics and astrophysics degree at the Russell Group university, had said he found the prospect of not achieving his potential “incredibly upsetting”.
However, his academic and pastoral tutor, Matthew Browning, told the inquest he did not feel Armstrong Evans’s concerns were “exceptional” enough for him to raise them with the student’s parents.
He told the inquest in Cornwall that he had not had in-person training on suicidal ideation and could not recall receiving formal guidance on spotting “red flags” that might have helped him recognise warning signs.
Armstrong Evans’s parents, Rupert and Alice Armstrong Evans, who have accused Exeter of shortcomings, want the government to adopt what they have called “Harry’s law”, under which universities would have to publish the annual student suicide rate at their institution, and which faculty those students were studying in.
Armstrong Evans, from Cornwall, was one of 11 students at Exeter reported to have taken their own lives in the last six years. The university said not all had been officially confirmed as suicide by a coroner.
On the first day of Armstrong Evans’s inquest, Browning, an associate professor of astrophysics, described him as shy but industrious. In his first two years his exam results ranged from 52% to 92% but at the start of 2021 “fell off a cliff” and were as low as 21%. Browning said the results were “unusual”.
Guy Davies, an assistant coroner for Cornwall, said a “key” piece of evidence was an email Armstrong Evans sent to Browning and the university’s welfare team on 28 May 2021.
He wrote: “I have been in isolation in my virtually empty hall of residence. As you may have seen, I did very poorly in my January exams. I am a quiet person, so writing to you and the welfare office does not come easily to me, but I understand that I am running out of time to speak up.”
He said he had had “some significant personal problems” in the run-up to the exams, adding: “Beyond this, I’ve found the last year during the pandemic to be incredibly difficult. 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 really struggled to think straight and the exams for me were a horrible culmination of my stresses.”
He had hoped to take a postgraduate course but knew he needed better marks. “The thought of not achieving what I should be able to for reasons beyond my control is incredibly upsetting,” he wrote.
The email was sent on a Friday evening just before a bank holiday and Browning did not reply until a week later. He told Armstrong Evans he was a “smart guy” and offered to meet him for coffee. He also said he hoped welfare had been in touch.
But he did not have his mobile number to contact him. If he had, he said he would “probably” have rung him. Browning told the inquest he “assumed” welfare would speak to Armstrong Evans. The student died on 24 June 2021.
The inquest is due to hear from Mark Sawyer, the university’s head of wellbeing and welfare, on Thursday afternoon.
The hearing continues.
In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org