University student Harrison De George was making plans for Christmas and “buzzing” to return home when his sister Izzy spoke to him for the last time.
Training to be a maths teacher, he had been anxious and stressed about getting enough hours during the coronavirus pandemic to pass his placement.
Just hours after that final conversation, the 23-year-old Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) student died by suicide, leaving his mum and sister shocked.
Harrison, from Chandler’s Ford in Hampshire, had failed to show up for his teaching placement, which his family says was unlike him, but his absence wasn’t reported.
Izzy, 25, said: “We spoke to the university the next day to let them know that he had passed away and they had no idea about it.
“The placement mentor had emailed Harrison at 3pm (the day he died) to ask if he was going to be in, but didn’t notify the university to say he didn’t show up.
“It was very unlike him, he was a very diligent student.”
She feels her only sibling was failed by MMU and, in her time of grief, has launched a national campaign asking universities to do more to prevent similar tragedies.
Izzy’s campaign has been backed by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, her local MP.
She said Harrison had struggled with with his mental health for years and had depression, but he never told his family just how bad it was.
He was anxious and stressed about missing hours of his placement when he was forced to self-isolate in November during the coronavirus pandemic.
But the university wasn’t particularly reassuring and could have done more to support him, said Izzy, a nurse in London who often helps placement students.
Harrison spoke to his mum on the evening of December 6 last year, but the following day he wasn’t answering text messages or phone calls.
He was pronounced dead after a flatmate found him unconscious at their home in Salford.
Izzy said: “We were very, very shocked when we found out. We couldn’t believe that was Harrison.”
The previous night, there were no red flags as Harrison sent a text message to his sister, saying he was “buzzing for Christmas with you” and he was looking forward to being at home over the holidays.
Her brother was an intelligent young man who was “very good” at maths, art and poetry, and lit up a room when he walked in, she said
Izzy added: “He was very passionate at everything he did.
“He was very loving, he was very kind and he was a really good brother and son.
“He was just generally a really nice person to be around.”
The day he died, Harrison had failed to show up to his teaching placement, but MMU wasn’t aware because the placement did not notify the university placements team of his absence.
According to the policy at that time, the university would only be notified if a student had missed two consecutive days.
Izzy said MMU’s response to her brother’s death was “impersonal” and the university didn’t send any kind of condolences to the family.
She was stunned when she discovered how lax MMU’s policies were when it came to monitoring and supporting placement students.
MMU agreed to do more following conversations with the devastated family.
Now, placements must immediately notify the university if a student doesn’t show up and they must try to contact the student as well, said Izzy.
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If they are unable to get in touch with the student, they must notify the next-of-kin and the police if there are concerns about the person’s welfare.
MMU has also created a mental health forum for students on the course Harrison was taking and it now offers mental health first aid training to lecturers to help them spot the signs.
Izzy said she doesn’t know if her brother’s death could have been “prevented by the university solely”.
She said she believes university life was “a massive stress factor” for him and that it contributed to his death.
She added: “I ultimately believe that the system let him down.
Taking her Positive Changes in Placement campaign nationwide, Izzy is now trying to get every university in the UK to look at its policies and make them stronger, if needed, to make sure placement students have appropriate monitoring and support.
It is hoped it will prevent similar tragedies.
Five months on, Izzy is still in shock over her brother’s death and coming to terms with her loss.
She said: “I want to make my brother as proud as I possibly can.
“I want to prevent families from going through this.
“A massive hole has been left in our lives – you never think that this is going to be your life.”
Working with the mental health charity Mad Millennials, Izzy has sent a survey to every university in the UK to find out more about their placement policies and support for students.
The aim is to identify out-of-date policies and close any gaps.
Izzy said: “A lot of universities have been receptive and said their handbooks are out of date.
“Some have not been receptive and said their policies are fine.
“It’s the ones who aren’t adaptive to change who have outdated politics.
“We want every university to maker sure they have robust policies.”
She spoke to Sir Keir on Zoom during the Covid lockdown as part of her push for universities to be regulated on the wellbeing support they provide to their students.
“At present, there is nothing holding universities accountable to holding to frameworks,” she said.
During her work she has discovered that NHS mental health services are “ridiculously underfunded” and the services offered to people in crisis are limited because there isn’t enough money.
She has met other families who have lost a loved one to suicide, including Alice Hendy, whose 21-year-old brother Josh died in November last year.
Alice, from Fareham, created an online monitoring tool called R;pple Suicide Prevention, which shows internet users a pop-up display on their device when they have been searching for self-harm or suicide content.
The pop-up states “You are not alone no matter how you feel” and refers the person to suicide prevention charities such as Papyrus, Samaritans and CALM.
Through a JustGiving page, Harrison’s family have raised more than £23,000 for CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably), and they are now raising funds for R;pple.
A spokesman for Manchester Metropolitan University said: “Our thoughts remain with Harrison’s family and friends.
“Student welfare is always our top priority and we are keen to explore any steps we can take to enhance the support we offer.
“We provide a range of measures to support mental health and wellbeing of our students and staff and continue to review and add to these where necessary.
“Following Harrison’s death and subsequent discussions with his family, we reviewed our processes with placement providers and have re-emphasised the importance of them informing us at the earliest opportunity if one of our students has not attended their workplace or there are wellbeing concerns.
“While we know these measures would not have made a difference unfortunately in Harrison’s case, we were happy to provide this additional reassurance to his family and are supportive of them in raising awareness of the measures we have in place.”