Harry’s Law: A Call For Student Suicide Accountability

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Vivika Sahajpal

Trigger Warning: Suicide

The story of Harry’s Law is one with devastating roots, but also a message that has led to important conversations surrounding suicide and legislation. The advocates for Harry’s Law tried to push universities to a new level of accountability and raise awareness of student suicides, a pervasive issue that is far too often swept under the rug, stigmatised and disregarded. Vivika Sahajpal reports.

The petition, which has now closed, began for this proposed law named after Harry Armstrong Evans, when his parents decided to demand action after he took his own life in 2021 during his final year of university. This was due to the mental health crisis he had when he failed his final-year exams at the University of Exeter (UoE) where he studied physics and astrophysics. 

The enormous pain and anger with the university that Harry’s parents felt were accompanied by the coroner’s criticism of UoE for their neglect of their student’s mental health and their failure to respond to his “cry for help”. Harry’s struggles took place during the trying times of the pandemic. Isolation and an apparent lack of help from UoE caused the mental health issues he was facing to worsen; during his mental health crisis, Harry and his family reached out to the university for help, which Harry’s family say resulted in them being brushed off and his struggles to not be taken seriously. 

Harry’s Law would have held universities accountable for their role in the mental health of their students

Following this perceived neglect from the university’s welfare staff, the petition for Harry’s Law was born and these were the new rules it aimed to introduce: 

  • Coroners to inform universities when the suicide of an enrolled student is registered
  • Universities to publish annually the suicide rate of enrolled students 
  • New powers to place universities into ‘special measures’ where suicide rates exceed that of the national average.

The beautifully proactive approach that Harry’s family chose to take in the wake of their tragedy only further demonstrates the importance of their mission to save the lives of current and future students.

88% of students would welcome more transparency from universities

The implementation of Harry’s Law would have held universities accountable for their role in the mental health of their students. It would, firstly, make prospective students aware of this data when applying to different universities and secondly, would push all university welfare and support systems to a higher standard by giving them further motivation to ensure the well-being of their students.

The desire for this law comes not only from parents but also from current university students, with data showing that 88% of students would welcome more transparency from universities, showing again the need for this kind of legislation. 

University can be such a difficult time for some students with deadlines, exams, living away from home and job prospects to worry about, not to mention the other pressures that come with being a young adult. The importance of systems of support cannot be stressed enough, especially in times of great struggle such as the pandemic or the cost of living crisis. This law would have encouraged conversations around mental health between students and within institutions alike, helping to remove stigma and save lives. 

Created a conversation and a cry for Universities to be held accountable

Naturally, any law that involved moving boundaries and affects the privacy of institutions or individuals will meet resistance and open discussion. In the case of student suicides, there’s the privacy of the student’s family to consider and the privacy of the institution.

Given the role of universities as a service to the public, their disclosure of data like this is arguably an obligation and the privacy of an institution shouldn’t be prioritised over the lives of the individual. This does leave us with questions around the privacy of the student and their family but this appears to be an issue that could be resolved by more clear guidelines on what is disclosed at each stage and by giving the family more autonomy over the specific pieces of information that are released. 

Whilst the specifics of legislation surrounding student suicide would need to be refined, the mission of Harry’s family and Harry’s Law, whilst it didn’t go through to parliament on this occasion, has created a conversation and a cry for universities to be held accountable, for them to take mental health seriously, and for them to ultimately have their handling of these issues exposed to the public. The students of tomorrow deserve to know that they will be supported at the institutions that they’ll call home and the petition for Harry’s Law was an incredible step in the right direction.

Vivika Sahajpal

Featured image courtesy of Sasha Freemind via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

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