Natasha Abrahart: Nottingham woman with anxiety killed herself before big presentation, court told

“Hard-working and high-achieving” student Natasha Abrahart who suffered from crippling anxiety killed herself because the University of Bristol did not make arrangements for her alternative assessments, her parents have claimed.

Natasha Abrahart, 20, originally from West Bridgford, was found dead in her flat in April 2018, the day before she was due to take part in a group presentation to staff and students in a 329-seat lecture theatre.

She had made a previous suicide attempt earlier in the winter term, and university staff were aware she was struggling.

In February 2018 she emailed one university employee, saying: “I’ve been having suicidal thoughts and to a certain degree attempted it.”

Her parents Robert and Margaret are suing the university, claiming it failed to deliver on its duties to their daughter under the Equalities Act.

At a hearing at the Bristol Civil Justice Center on Tuesday (March 1), the couple alleged the university failed to make reasonable adjustments for Ms Abrahart’s mental disability.

They also claim she was a victim of indirect discrimination and discrimination as a disabled student.

The university is defending the claim in full, including a denial that it owed Natasha any relevant legal duty of care.

Jamie Burton QC, for the claimants, said Ms Abrahart had been acutely shy from childhood. She had grown up fascinated by physics and had taught herself computer programming.

He said she surrounded herself with a small group of long-standing friends while growing up, but did not talk much.

Mr Burton added: “She would shut down when made the center of attention or when confronted by people in positions of authority.”

Despite her social anxiety, the court hear Ms Abrahart had enrolled on a four-year masters course at the University of Bristol, and was in her second year when she died.

Mr Burton said that although she made friends, she rarely socialised outside her home, and, if she did go out, she was reliant on friends to order drinks and food for her.

Before the presentation, known as a laboratory conference, Ms Abrahart had struggled to complete one-on-one interview-based assessments, attending only two out of five.

In her first assessment, she was so shy she scored only eight out of a possible 20 marks.

The court heard that in the months before her death, there was a “significant deterioration in her mental health”.

Ms Abrahart had carried out internet searches on the link between anxiety and depression, as well as searches such as “why do I hate people?” and “why do I find people scary?”

“(This) is about disability-related discrimination – about the provision of education to Natasha, a disabled student,” Mr Burton said.

Ms Abrahart’s family say oral assessments could have been replaced with written versions or she could have been provided with questions in advance.

They also say the laboratory conference could have been moved to a smaller venue.

Mr Burton said that despite the civil claim, Ms Abrahart’s parents do not allege that any member of staff breached their duty of care to her, noting many had tried to help her.

He added that it was not claimed that the university was in any way responsible for ensuring she got better or accessed services.

Giving evidence, Ms Abrahart’s mother Margaret said: “I knew something was upsetting her hugely – if I questioned her I knew it was going to be very stressful.

“I made the very difficult decision to trust other people.”

Rajan Palan, a friend of Ms Abrahart’s, accompanied her to several medical appointments and did his best to persuade her to access services.

He said he knew the university was aware of one suicide attempt by Ms Abrahart, but not of a subsequent one.

“If I made attempts to tell anyone, Natasha wholly resisted it,” he said.

Mr Palan admitted becoming quite frustrated and angry, saying: “I felt angry with the university, with her parents, with myself for not doing more.”

He added: “I felt like, ‘Why is no one helping me here?’”



Natasha Abrahart pictured in June 2014

The case is due to last seven days, with a judgment reserved to a later date.

Natasha had been diagnosed with chronic social anxiety disorder two months earlier.

She was at least the tenth student at the University of Bristol to take their own life since October 2016.

The family say Natasha had been a high-achieving student until her second year at university.

They said academic staff had become aware that she was struggling and was experiencing anxiety and panic attacks in relation to oral assessments that she was required to take as part of her course.

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”.

An inquest into Natasha’s death in May 2019 later concluded that she had been neglected by mental health services.

This is not the first time that the University of Bristol’s care responsibilities have been brought under scrutiny – the recent trial of a separate legal action against the university, brought by PhD student Raquel Rosario Sanchez, also considered whether the institution owed a duty of care to its students as regards their mental health.

A spokesperson for the University of Bristol said: “Natasha’s death deeply affected everyone at the University and our thoughts and sympathies are with the Abrahart family.

Like all universities, schools and colleges, we are deeply concerned by the increase of mental health issues amongst our young people nationally. We do our very best to support any student who is struggling with their mental health and have a wide range of services available However, it is important that students receive appropriate specialist care under the NHS.

“At the time of Natasha’s death in April 2018, she was under the care of Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership.

“We are fully committed to working with our partners in the NHS, charities and across the higher education sector in a collaborative effort to ensure we are collectively providing the best possible support for students in their studies.

“We recognise the massive efforts of our committed staff to support Natasha, but we are by no means complacent. Mental health is one of the biggest public health issues affecting young people globally – not just those studying at University.”

In a previous statement they added: “Staff in the School, along with colleagues from Student Services, worked incredibly hard and diligently to help and support Natasha with her studies and her mental health needs. They are understandably very distressed not only about the tragic loss of a student but about the often-inaccurate reporting of their actions.

“The School’s Student Administration Manager spoke and met with Natasha on many occasions to offer support and advice, and to help her find appropriate professional support. On one occasion she went to Natasha’s flat and personally took her to the Student Health Service to see a GP for an emergency appointment.

After a referral from her GP in February 2018, Natasha was under the care of specialist mental health professionals and she continued to receive support and advice from staff in the School of Physics. This included discussing options to alleviate the anxiety she faced about presenting her laboratory. findings to her peers as part of an assessed laboratory conference (such as not taking to the stage, letting others present, and not having to answer any subsequent questions).”

The Samaritans run a free 24-hour phone line on 116 123 for people experiencing a range of problems. It also has a website with further details.

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