Lancing student’s death prompts concerns about mental health support at University of Brighton

Lucy Spears studied at the University of Brighton and lived in Lancing
Lucy Spears studied at the University of Brighton and lived in Lancing

A coroner has expressed concern about the apparent lack of support for people with severe mental health difficulties at the University of Brighton after a second-year student took her own life.

Lucy Spears, a 22-year-old student mental health nurse, was found dead in the bedroom of her home in Wembley Gardens, Lancing, on Wednesday, May 9, 2018.

An inquest into her death was held at Crawley Coroner’s Court yesterday (Wednesday, February 6).

Paying tribute, her father Colin Spears described Lucy as an academically successful girl who had a close group of friends and enjoyed cycling and travelling abroad. Her death had ‘cast a shadow’ over their lives, he said.

Read Lucy’s family’s tribute to her here.

Lucy began studying at the University of Brighton in 2016 and moved to Lancing after her first year to rent a house with her partner.

In October, 2017, she was diagnosed as having an eating disorder and began receiving weekly psychological support.

Problems began to develop between Lucy and her partner and their three-year relationship ended in early 2018, with her partner moving out.

On March 20, Lucy was cycling when she was knocked off her bike by a van. She was admitted to hospital with a total of eight fractures, which required both of her arms to be put in casts.

Lucy also suffered an injury to her jaw which meant she was unable to eat any solid food and this ‘stopped any progress’ with her anorexia, her father said.

Mr Spears said the accident was ‘life changing’ for Lucy and said: “We strongly believe Lucy would still be alive if she hadn’t had the accident.”

He said it took away her ‘coping mechanisms’ of cycling and the gym. It also meant Lucy fell behind with her coursework at university and had difficulty concentrating and writing.

But Mr Spears said the university, who offered her a two-week extension on her coursework, was ‘unsympathetic’ and said: “Lucy could have really benefitted from emotional and practical support from them.”

He added: “They were teaching mental health so should have been more caring.”

Crisis support

On April 26, Lin Creasey, the psychologist treating Lucy for her eating disorder, feared her mental health was deteriorating and referred her to the crisis resolution and home treatment team at Sussex Partnership Trust.

Lucy began receiving daily visits from the crisis team.

On May 8, the day before she was found dead, she was visited by consultant psychiatrist Christine Pugh.

She said Lucy seemed ‘very conflicted’ and unable to make decisions about whether to defer her course at university for a year or not – but Lucy was also ‘forward planning’ and finding the visits from the crisis team ‘helpful’.

Dr Pugh said she did not consider her to be at immediate risk of suicide.

Later the same day, Lucy was visited by senior social worker Susan Baker, who was the last person to see her alive.

She said Lucy was concerned about having the casts taken off her arms the following day, as she was worried it would allow her to fall back into a pattern of excessive exercise related to her eating disorder.

Ms Baker said she did not think Lucy would take her own life, adding: “I saw a woman who was trying to negotiate how to live, not whether to live or not.”

Lucy had previously told the team she had ‘intense suicidal thoughts’ – but she had also said did not plan to act on these thoughts and Ms Baker said there was evidence that Lucy would contact the team if she was feeling unsafe.

But Mr Spears said: “It seems strange to me...how can you rely on Lucy saying she’s not going to do it?”

Lucy was found dead the next morning at 9.25am. A post-mortem examination found the cause of death to be hanging.

Lucy Steiner, a social worker at Sussex Partnership Trust, told the court an internal investigation into the incident found no problems with the service delivery or Lucy’s care.

An ‘absence’ of support

Penelope Schofield, senior coroner at West Sussex, raised concerns about the university’s communication with Lucy and said: “The university cannot prove what engagement they have had with her.”

Following Lucy’s accident, Ms Schofield said: “It is quite clear that there was a complete absence of welfare support to Lucy from the university.”

She said the university was aware Lucy was being seen by the crisis resolution home treatment team.

“Sussex Partnership Trust wrote to the university advising them the crisis team was involved with Lucy and in the letter was indeed asking for their support, but none was forthcoming,” she said.

Returning a narrative conclusion, the coroner said: “Lucy, who had been diagnosed with an eating disorder, took her own life on or around the 9th May whilst under the care of the crisis team.

“Her mental health had been severely impacted following a road traffic collision in which she was knocked off her bike, following which there was no active welfare support provided to her by the university.”

She said she was minded to make a prevention of future death report and adjourned the inquest until March 22.

She said: “I’m very concerned about the lack of provision that seems to be in place in giving support to those with severe mental health difficulties.

“It may be that there are policies in place, but I haven’t had sight of them.”

In a statement issued after the inquest, a spokesman from the University of Brighton said: ““The thoughts of everyone at the University of Brighton are with Lucy’s family and friends at what is a very difficult time.

“The welfare of our students is our top priority and the University has a wide range of welfare and other support services in place.

“The University carried out an internal review at the time of Lucy’s tragic death and submitted a full report to the coroner, detailing all of the support and care provided to her.

“We are therefore very concerned that the coroner feels that there have been failings on our part.

“The University takes the coroner’s views seriously and will take whatever actions are appropriate in the light of her recommendations.”

‘A unique character’

Paying tribute to Lucy after the inquest, her family described her as ‘a truly unique character’ who was ‘funny and sarcastic, naturally intelligent with a passion for travel’.

“Although she didn’t always show it, Lucy lived a life full of love, with close friends throughout her life,” they said.

If you are affected by any issues raised in this story, contact The Samaritans for confidential support on 116 123.

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