Countrywide Calls for Duty of Care Supporting University Students’ Mental Health Drives Petition to Parliament
Higher education students and families of suicide victims push the government to establish a duty of care that supports those experiencing poor mental health during their studies, amid a successful petition that’s garnered attention across the UK.
The petition calls for a statutory duty of care to prioritize students’ mental health, safety, and wellbeing and on 15 March reached the 100,000 signatures required for parliamentary debate. Earlier this month, vigils in London, Bristol, and Edinburgh honoured the hundreds of students who took their lives at university in recent years.
Behind the petition are Bob and Maggie Abrahart, who lost their 20-year-old daughter Natasha to suicide in 2018 while she studied at the University of Bristol. UoB became aware of Natasha’s mental health issues several months before her death but successfully argued in court that it didn’t have a duty of care to Natasha because the care of her at the university differed from that of a child in school or an adult in the workplace.
The Abraharts have encountered much confusion as to whether a duty of care exists for HE students. Dr. Abrahart cited a 2018 Student Minds report as evidence that academics often don’t understand their role in supporting students’ wellbeing. He said these student-staff relationships need clarification, especially as a duty of care already exists for students under 18.
“Teachers and other staff in schools have a common law duty when in charge of pupils to take the same care of them as they would as a parent,” the Department of Education states.
As well, Dr. Abrahart previously explained that the HE sector has a duty of care to protect staff “to ensure that nobody on the payroll suffers stress-related illness as a result of their daily toil.”
A ‘general duty of care’
University is a really vulnerable time… and you may need support, and I think it’s not really obvious that there is this support.Summer Lytton Cobbold
DfE responded to the petition on 20 January that HE providers already have a “general duty of care” to “protect the health, safety and welfare of their students.”
“University is a really vulnerable time … and you may need support, and I think it’s not really obvious that there is this support,” said Summer Lytton Cobbold, a third-year film, photography and media student at the University of Leeds who runs the petition-affiliated #ForThe100 campaign.
She started the campaign in December after learning her cousin struggled with mental health upon getting dismissed from university in Manchester. Lytton Cobbold, who felt supported in grade school during her own mental health struggles, can’t comprehend why the same duty of care doesn’t exist for HE students.
“You shouldn’t need help to know where to find it,” she said.
In a more recent statement, DfE said its first-ever student support champion is speaking with “bereaved parents” to determine where improvements should occur.
“We expect all universities to take active steps to prevent suicides and to meet their legal duties in respect of the safety and welfare of their students,” the statement said. “We are working closely with charities and the sector to promote and fund effective mental health support such as the free Student Space online service.”
The Abraharts said a duty of care is about creating an environment where students can thrive and aren’t harmed through a university’s action or inaction. For example, emailing students about dismissals, especially late at night when no one is available to support them, can destroy their lifelong aspirations and leave them vulnerable.
“In the real world, you have face-to-face meetings,” Dr. Abrahart said. “You take into account whether they’ve got some underlying mental health issue, rather than just treating them as numbers and using automated emailing systems.”
They also suggested that universities should proactively obtain students’ consent to contact others about their mental health challenges.
“Natasha told a member of staff that she was suicidal, but that person thought the information was too sensitive to share,” said Mrs. Abrahart, who’s worked in NHS mental health care. “That person wasn’t qualified in mental health and was making decisions about what was safe for our daughter.”
A surge of support
As part of a small team, Lytton Cobbold helped design the #ForThe100 branding and social media campaign. By 10 March, the petition only had about 36,000 signatures, with just nine days left before closing.
“I was saying to my housemates, ‘Guys, I don’t think it’s happening. I don’t know what to do,’ because I really feel like I’ve poured my heart and soul into this thing over the last two months.”
Her team had avoided using Facebook, but a thousands-strong network of parents across the UK, partly concerned for their children in HE, quickly took to the platform to share the petition.
“It would mean a lot to me to know that the parents get this closure that they’ve been trying so hard to get,” Lytton Cobbold said. “Even if it’s just changing the law [so] that when a person at university says, ‘I think I’m going to take my own life,’ that’s where the law comes in and you have to call their parents.”
Data published by the Office for National Statistics in May 2022 suggested that English and Welsh HE students aged 24 and younger experienced lower suicide rates between 2016 and 2020 compared to the general population in that age range. The data reported 319 student suicides between the 2016-17 and 2019-20 academic years.
Dr. Abrahart noted the petition doesn’t mention suicide, which he said is “just the tip of the iceberg” of what a duty of care concerns.
“It’s about doing the right thing, not just about preventing suicide,” Mrs. Abrahart added.
In a statement, UoL said it partners closely with the Leeds University Union, recommends such resources as Leeds Mental Wellbeing Service, and is embedding wellbeing in its curriculum to support students.
“In line with all other higher education institutions, the University has a general duty of care for all of its students,” the statement said. “We endeavour to provide an environment in which students can enjoy their time here and gain the experience, knowledge and skills for a successful future.
A ‘fundamental change in student rights’
In 1969, the Family Law Reform Act lowered the age of majority from 21 to 18. Dr. Abrahart said this leaves HE students between 18 and 21 vulnerable, as they’re considered adults yet not protected by employment law until 21. He said establishing a duty of care that targets this age group could become “the most fundamental change in student rights for 50 years.”
A statement from the National Union of Students said universities and the government have a role in helping vulnerable students both preventatively and during crisis, “… to analyse the protective factors that can support students before they are in crisis, and thereby make our learning and living environments more supportive for young people.”
Alex Simpson-Hayter, vice-president of Suicide Support and Awareness for Everyone at UoL and a third-year criminology student, said universities’ small and understaffed mental health services can’t fully support their student populations. More than 2 million students study in HE across the UK.
“A lot of people move to university from a new city, or even a new country, so they might not know about the support services outside of the university,” Simpson-Hayter said. “I don’t think the universities do enough to signpost or make students aware of what the services are.”
She suggested increasing funding for student support services and pushing closer links between universities, the NHS, and other mental health organizations.
“Some people literally are in lectures all day and they go home and then they’re studying up until they go to bed,” she said. “They don’t then have that time to actually look after themselves.”
Lytton Cobbold attributed mental health challenges for students to social anxiety and the adjustment to independent study. She advised looking out for those who don’t attend class or interact with their instructors.
“When you have that closer relationship and you really feel like you’re a part of the student community and the university, you’re probably more likely to reach out for help,” Simpson-Hayter added.
The LEARN Network, which the Abraharts are part of, hosts a briefing session in Parliament on 25 April that welcomes all House of Commons and House of Lords members. Dr. Abrahart noted getting the debate to Westminster Hall is just one way to spur discussion on duty of care.
“The important thing at this point is to get it on the political agenda,” Mrs. Abrahart said. “It’s easy to tick a box to say you agree, but to actually be able to tell your MP why you agree carries a lot of extra weight.”
Dr. Abrahart said the petition has “debunked the myth that a duty of care exists” for HE students and “proven that there’s an interest in one.”
Header Photo Credit: Evert Lindquist