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By Alison Stacey
Ewan Fawcitt developed severe depression after he started a course in Medical Sciences at the university in September 2011
A mum tormented by the suicide of her son at university has said lessons must be learned from his death.
Cathy Fawcitt, 50, said she was left helpless, when son Ewan developed severe depression after he started a course in Medical Sciences at the University of Birmingham in September 2011.
His studies were being affected and he wasn’t turning up to lectures and seminars – but his parents had no idea, and mum Cathy was later told no one could discuss Ewan’s problems with her as he was an adult.
He took his own life just 16 months later in his home town of Truro on January 14 last year, aged just 19.
Now mum Cathy, a former pupil at King Edward’s High School, in Edgbaston, is determined to get more support for students struggling to cope with mental health problems.
Ewan Fawcitt: Suicide student’s mum says lessons must be learned from his death
“No words are adequate for how we feel. It is an appalling waste of a precious young life. To us he was the most precious thing.”
Ewan, who Cathy described as ‘a bright happy young lad’, moved from his family home in Truro, Cornwall, to Birmingham in September 2011 to start studying a Bsc in Medical Sciences after getting 3 A grades and a B in his A-Levels.
But as Ewan was struggling to cope with his new life hundreds of miles away, it was not until a letter was sent home in January 2012 calling Ewan to a disciplinary meeting that his parents got wind that not everything was right with their son.
“He had stopped engaging with his course,” remembers Cathy. “He got a letter calling him to a disciplinary meeting as he had not been doing the work.
“I was absolutely appalled. It was totally out of character. He had never even missed a day of school.”
During the Christmas holidays Cathy and husband Chris, 47, had noticed that Ewan was extremely tired, and was sleeping all day while being awake most of the night.
“He never complained. By the end of the holidays he seemed back to himself.”
But after discovering Ewan’s negligible attendance at university, Cathy became worried and upset. She emailed the university to express her serious concerns.
But as Ewan was technically an adult, the Medical Science department told her that they were unable to discuss any issues with them, despite numerous desperate and often tearful phone calls
“It was very frustrating. In fairness they have now implemented a new scheme to change this, which we are really pleased with.
“But at the time we were told that essentially they were not there to baby-sit Ewan.
“I understand this – but when you are paying huge amounts of money for a course and moving hundreds of miles away from home, a university has a duty of care to the students. Especially young adults who are vulnerable.”
Meanwhile Cathy, who has three other children, visited her eldest son as often as she could at university.
In June 2012 Cathy was not able to contact her son for 48 hours and was seriously concerned.
After contacting Student Services a third year medical student was sent round to check on Ewan.
“Ewan answered the door and the lad asked Ewan if he was OK. That was it,” said Cathy.
During the summer holidays Ewan was diagnosed with depression by his GP in Cornwall, and was later prescribed antidepressants Citalopram.
But Ewan did not start taking the drugs, which can intensify suicidal thoughts, until after visiting the University Medical Centre in Edgbaston on his return to his course in October.
It was also recommended that the teenager see a counsellor. But barely able to leave the house due to severe anxiety, Ewan was unable to get the help he needed and he sank further into depression over the next two months.
He failed to attend his review appointments with the doctor, and was even taken to A&E with serious alcohol intoxication in November 2012.
His grandparents, who live in Harborne, grew so concerned they hauled Ewan back to see Dr Basra, his Birmingham GP, in a bid to seek help.
“Ewan wasn’t in a position to actively seek help for himself” said Cathy.
“Despite missing his appointments, being admitted to A&E, a diagnosis of severe depression with suicidal thoughts, and many letters expressing our grave concerns, Ewan was still not referred to mental health services.
“It makes you wonder how much more urgent a situation has to be before help is sought for someone with crippling mental health problems?”
Ewan came back to Truro with his family in December 2012, but sadly took his own life just a few weeks later on January 14.
“I can’t believe it has been a year since we lost him” said Cathy.
“At his funeral one of Ewan’s sister’s made a compilation of all his favourite songs. Then we went down to the beach, and had a game of football, which he would have loved.
“We wanted to celebrate his life.
Now Cathy and husband Chris are determined to try to make changes so that future young adults who also struggle with university life don’t slip through the net.
“I can’t deny that I was angry when it first happened. I was never alerted to how severe the situation was as no one would discuss Ewan with me,” she said.
“Perhaps if I had known then I would have been better equipped to help him when he came home for that last Christmas.
“If we can safeguard other vulnerable children, then at least it would be meaningful for us.”
A spokesperson from the University of Birmingham said: “The University was deeply saddened to hear of Ewan’s death and has worked closely with his family since to re-examine the support he received whilst here as part of our ongoing work to improve student welfare.
“The input from Ewan’s family has greatly helped us in developing a new risk assessment framework that balances our statutory responsibilities and our duty of care to further mitigate risks faced by vulnerable young adults.
“This has included a variety of events including the first ever University Mental Health day in February, and we have also improved information and publicity about counselling services at the University for students.”
Dr Basra, from the University Medical Practice, Edgbaston, said: “It was a tragic event that unfortunately was unforeseen.
“As the practice is currently carrying out a significant event review after Ewan’s death, which it does for all events of this nature, it is not appropriate for me to comment any further.”