Introducing Harry’s Law: The petition fighting to change how universities deal with suicide

88 per cent of students wish their uni was more transparent about student suicide, a Tab survey has found

Third year physics and astrophysics student at Exeter, Harry Armstrong Evans loved chess and rowing, was planning on doing a Master’s, and his father Rupert tells me he was “such a sweet boy” whom his siblings would always go to for advice. Harry died in June 2021.

Now, Alice and Rupert Armstrong Evans are on a mission. They’re campaigning for Harry’s Law, named after their beloved son – a proposed change in the law that would rewrite the rules on how universities deal with student suicide.

Harry’s parents say he was a diligent student who was on track for a First or a 2:1, but he’d found his exams in January 2021 during lockdown particularly hard – suddenly getting “really low marks, including a zero” in an online exam he’d struggled with how to upload. Harry reached out to Exeter University in a “cry for help” just weeks before taking his own life, the inquest into his death heard last year, detailing how the pandemic was having an “adverse affect on [his] mental health”.

Alice herself also contacted the university’s welfare department. “I totally trusted Exeter University to get in touch with my son”, she says, but “nothing happened”. At the inquest it was revealed two phone call logs from Alice, in which she raised concerns over her son’s mental health, had accidentally been deleted. (Exeter told the hearing it has since requested a new system for wellbeing to stop this mistake from being repeated, and said it will “make sure we learn the lessons […] specifically in the areas recommended by the coroner”.)

The coroner criticised the university, concluding Harry’s death was due to a “mental health crisis” which was “preceded by a catalogue of missed opportunities along with system failures” which failed to support him. “The safety net did not operate to safeguard Harry”, the coroner said.

Harry Armstrong Evans

What exactly is Harry’s Law?

“Currently, there is no mechanism by which universities must record or publish their student suicide rates, yet too many – like Harry – take their life each year”, the petition says.

“Currently, there is no mechanism by which universities must record or publish their student suicide rates, yet too many – like Harry – take their life each year”, the petition says.

Following Harry’s death, it has been revealed that at least 11 Exeter students are believed to have died by suicide in just the past six years. Among them is Joel Rees, who studied on the same course as Harry – physics and astrophysics – and died in June 2017, the year before Harry started at Exeter. Joel’s father David said Joel had been worried about his exams and felt he didn’t have enough time to study alongside his job. “He set a high standard for himself and had a positive attitude,” David said. “He was very independent.”

Finding out about this is what inspired Rupert and Alice to begin campaigning for Harry’s Law. “If we had known that a young man had taken his life on the same course as Harry the year before he started, we would have definitely spoken to Harry about suicide. […] We would have talked about it, and I know that this would not have happened”, Alice says. “And all I can want now is for no other families to go through what we’ve gone through.”

Harry with his sisters

Through Harry’s Law, Alice and Rupert are fighting for three things, which they hope will improve transparency around student suicides and eliminate the taboo that surrounds the subject. “We feel it really would save lives”, Alice says. “Just talking about it, just universities being open about it. […] It’s a needless loss and it should not happen. I’m sure that more openness and transparency would really reduce numbers. How could it not?”

The proposed changes – which they are calling Harry’s Law – are:

  1. Coroners to inform universities when the suicide of an enrolled student is registered
  2. Universities to publish annually the suicide rate of enrolled students
  3. New powers to place universities into “special measures” where suicide rates exceed that of the national average

This is something students have been waiting for. 88 per cent of students wish their university was more transparent about the amount of student suicides that happen, in figures obtained by The Tab as part of our 2022/23 Mental Health Survey.

The Tab asked students 4,000 students, at over 30 unis all around the country, “Do you wish your university was more transparent about the amount of suicides that happen at your uni?” – and 88 per cent said yes. You Matter is The Tab’s annual campaign dedicated to highlighting the student mental health crisis.

The Harry’s Law petition, on the government website

“They say students are adults”, Rupert says, “but then they go on to say ‘we don’t want students told about student suicides at their establishments’. Alice has written to over 120 universities, and some of them have been incredibly blatant in saying ‘no we don’t want information shared with us’, because they know that if information is shared, if they have the knowledge, they have to record that information and do something about it.”

On University Mental Health Day, at the beginning of last month, Alice visited Exeter’s campus, to spend a few hours walking around and share the petition with students. “I was a bit nervous”, she says. “I’ve never done anything like that before. And I just couldn’t believe how welcoming the students were, they really listened to what I had to say. They gave me hugs, they sent me love, they said they’d share it.”

You can find out more about Harry’s Law here and sign the petition here. At 10,000 signatures the government will respond, and at 100,000 the petition will be considered for a parliament debate.

If you or someone you know has been affected by this story, please speak to someone or contact Samaritans on 116 123 at any time. You can also contact Anxiety UK on 03444 775 774, Mind on 0300 123 3393, Calm (Campaign against living miserably) on 0800 58 58 58, and Student Minds online here. You matter.

The Tab’s You Matter campaign is dedicated to highlighting the student mental health crisis. If you’ve got a story you’d like to tell us – whether it’s difficulties with getting uni support, or anything you think we should hear, get in touch in confidence by emailing [email protected]

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At least 11 Exeter students have reportedly died by suicide in just the past six years