Like all parents, Liz de Oliveira sent her son to college in the hope that he would pursue his dreams.
Only his brilliant young daughter never came home.
In 2017, Lucy de Oliveira was 22 when she took her own life in her bedroom while studying for a pediatric nursing degree at Liverpool John Moores.
Liz says her daughter’s death was preventable, which is why she and 25 other parents are calling on the government to introduce a statutory care requirement for students at universities across the country.
The mum-of-two says Lucy, from Kidderminster, Worcestershire, never had mental health problems until her second year of university, when she was put on antidepressants.
She had moved out of the corridors into a student house with four other girls, who she wanted to move out of but was struggling to get out of the lease. She was working 36 hours a week in a placement hospital and had recently separated from her boyfriend.
Once the rent is paid, single mum Liz says Lucy only had £6 to live on.
To make ends meet he worked in a pizzeria as well as a nursing home in the remaining hours of the week he had left.
But due to a nervous twitch she developed, Liz says she was barred from the post because it was deemed unsafe for her to practice.
While Lucy hasn’t said as much, Liz thinks it has all become too much for her daughter and that her situation was filled with “red flags.”
The 65-year-old, who saw Lucy 24 hours before her death, didn’t realize the extent of her concerns until it was too late, but wishes university staff members had connected the dots.
Six years after her tragic death, Liz tells the Mirror: ‘There is nothing better. You never get over the loss of a child.
“I just think it was preventable and that’s the worst thing. That I was the last person to know about it.
“The things that happened to Lucy, taken individually, probably didn’t seem serious.
“But if there was some kind of central system, like with a red flag, there would have been red flags all over Lucy because of all the different things she was going through at the time.
“She wasn’t a mental health person, she was just a very, very normal girl.
“I helped as much as I could but she was very proud and independent, she didn’t want me to worry.
“He had the pressure of work, he worked shifts for the NHS, he saw children die, he had the pressure of studying.
“If they had the full picture, I always think they would have acted very differently. And I would have expected to get a call because of what was going on.
“Universities have a guide, where you can join and opt out and that’s the problem.
“I saw her the day before she died. If I’d known I wouldn’t have let her go back, it’s that simple.”
There is currently no law in the UK that dictates how universities should operate when it comes to student health and well-being.
They take the lead and policy from Universities UK, which works with 140 universities across the country; government and stakeholders to continue to improve the UK higher education sector.
Liz argues that there are too many disparities depending on where students go, and instead believes that every university should have a centralized system that guarantees their safety.
The family also ran into problems when their son Alex, now 32, enrolled in university and struggled to get support for his epilepsy.
Fearing that he might lose another child, his son quit midway through his class.
“Right now, one university does one thing and another does another, some bother, some don’t. It’s just like a lottery,” says Liz.
“I want people to understand that it is not only extreme situations covered by a legal duty of care, but also many everyday situations, such as the need for a deadline extension, the level of teaching, the student experience as a whole ‘university.
“We are only asking them to take reasonable care to ensure that their students are not harmed by the university’s actions or lack of action.
“If they’re actually following best practices, then they shouldn’t have a problem with that. Because it’s potentially going to protect them and it’s potentially going to give them a defense.
“If there’s a malpractice action, they can say, ‘We followed all directions to the tee, we did everything we were supposed to do.'”
Following a spate of college suicides, a group of bereaved parents came together to form an action group, The LEARN Network, and this year joined #ForThe100, made up of trained professionals dedicated to keeping children safe. higher education students with a legal obligation to care. The group includes academics, lawyers and mental health professionals.
They have created a petition calling on the government to introduce legislation and, after receiving more than 100,000 signatures, it was debated by MPs this afternoon in Westminster.
One concern with the proposal, however, is that it could potentially criminalize a university for failing to prevent a suicide.
But if it’s passed, Liz feels like her daughter’s devastating death wouldn’t have been for nothing, and that change can happen so no other family has to deal with the one she has.
“I feel like at least Lucy didn’t die entirely in vain. Nothing is going to bring her back to life, my family has been absolutely devastated,” she says.
“I just hope the politicians really notice. It’s important. How would they feel if it was their baby?
“We are not hysterical grieving parents. Yes, we are grieving but we are not hysterical. We have seen with our own eyes that it is happening and it continues to happen.”
In the year that Lucy died, the Office for National Statistics revealed that nearly 100 university students committed suicide.
Between the academic year ending in 2017 and the academic year ending in 2020, the male suicide rate for higher education students was statistically significantly higher (5.6 deaths per 100,000 students; 202 deaths by suicide ) compared to female students with 2.5 deaths per 100,000 students (117 deaths by suicide) – which is in line with the trend seen in the general population where suicide rates are higher among males.
Former lawyer Liz, who had to quit her job after her daughter’s suicide, describes Lucy as one of those people who light up a room.
“Lucy was a character. She was a kind, caring soul, caring for everyone – the problem is, she couldn’t fend for herself,” reflects Liz.
“As half Brazilian, she was absolutely stunning. A decent human being, beautiful inside and out.
“I’ve been getting messages from the adult teens he’s helped in children’s hospital. It’s not just me, my family, everyone he cared for, the people he worked with, the people in the nursing home he cared for, his friends, it affected thousands of people.
“She was an exceptional pupil, a brilliant nurse. Lucy was 20 when she started her university, traineeship and in one of her first shifts she saved a child’s life, that’s who we’ve lost. That’s who society has lost These are the kind of kids we’re losing.
“I’m not saying that one life is more important than another, but everyone had a future as a college student. If more attention had been paid, they would all still be here with that future.
“Instead of that, all of us parents are sitting there thinking now what? I can’t replace her. I miss her every single day.
“I can’t take her back, all I can do in her memory is make sure other families don’t go through this hell.
“I wasn’t given a chance to help. I gave birth to her and raised her alone. I didn’t send her to college to die. It’s as simple as that.”
He adds: “I will continue the fight until my last breath.
“If we don’t win on Monday, believe me, it won’t be the end. All of us are absolutely determined to get a change in the law.”
Professor Steve West CBE, President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of UWE Bristol, said: “Universities prioritize the mental health of students and staff and have a particular focus on preventing student suicide. Every life lost a cause of suicide is a tragedy and we are committed to working with bereaved families to learn from these deaths.
“A record number of children and young adults are now experiencing poor mental health and this is reflected in the growing need for students. Whilst universities are investing in student support and developing partnerships with NHS services, their main role is to adult learning facilities and not health care.
“We do not believe that the proposed additional legal duty of care, on top of the existing duties that already apply to universities, would be practical, proportionate or the best approach to support students.
‘We continue to work with the government and its champion of student support, Professor Edward Peck, on proposals to improve student outcomes.’
The Mirror approached Liverpool John Moores for comment.
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