Dr Mark Shanahan, a politics lecturer at the University of Reading, was in his office one morning when he heard a scream from the corridor. There was a knock on the door and a colleague entered, ashen-faced, followed by a police officer.

The first thought that entered Mark’s mind was something had happened to one of his students. Then he was told that his son had taken his own life.

Rory Shanahan was a student at the University of Sheffield, studying systems engineering. In Sheffield he found his tribe and became involved in different charitable causes. 

Over the phone he was always a man of few words and monosyllabic answers, but in the past Rory would call his parents to keep them up-to-date with how he was doing. But, just before the last semester in his final year, this stopped. 

One of Rory’s flatmates reached out to Mark, saying Rory had not left his room in a while and didn’t seem to be attending lectures. 

Mark called Rory’s senior tutor and expressed concern for his welfare, saying he believed his son was having mental health issues. But the tutor told Mark she could not discuss this with him. 

“She was really brusque and quite rude,” he said. “It was clear I wasn’t going to get anywhere with the department and there was no support for my son. So I drove up and brought him home. He was in a hell of a state.”

After a year out Rory returned to university, but was overwhelmed with work, as suspending his studies meant he had to complete four modules in one semester. 

Mark said: “If I had been his personal tutor or head of department, I would have probably been saying: Rory, that’s too much for one semester. Maybe you do two modules now and come back next year. So you spread it out and you have a workable workload. But nobody spoke to him about that.”

According to Mark, the university medical centre saw Rory and, despite the fact that he had expressed suicidal thoughts, declared him “fit for study”. 

“We later found out that all that did was enable Sheffield to start charging fees again,” Mark said.

“So Rory started in the first week in February. After a couple of days, he stopped going to lectures. He just dropped off the radar again.” 

Then, on 20 February 2018, Rory took his own life. 

“The worst hour of my life was telling my wife, ringing my younger daughter at school, my oldest daughter at work and ringing my parents. He was their only grandson.”

Mark and his wife Jacquie went to Sheffield, where they identified Rory’s body.

“Yes, the last time I saw my son was in the morgue,” Mark said. “The next day we went to his department. There’s a front desk in his department and we were met by an administrator and told them who we were. 

“They were somewhat shocked and tongue tied and asked us to wait for a few minutes. We were then taken into the heads of the department’s office. I can remember very clearly a cup of tea sitting on their desk, which was still hot with steam coming off it. But there was no sign of the head of department, who had done a runner, as had all of the other academic staff.” 

After they went home, the only communication Mark and Jacquie had was from someone in the senior management team who had never known Rory.

“There was a complete lack of humanity,” Mark said.

“He had been one of many hundreds of engineering students, and just nobody had managed any kind of transition to bring him back into the university, even though he’d been out with mental health issues for a year. And that is a huge failing. It’s not a failing of any individual. But it is a massive systemic failure from the university.” 

“Suicide is the very, very sharp end of this when everything goes wrong. There are a lot of levels where people can really suffer harm before it gets to suicide. And we believe that the statutory duty of care will have a halo effect that will benefit all levels of mental anguish.”

Since Rory’s suicide, Mark has fought for a legal duty of care at universities. He will be in parliament on Tuesday 16 May to give evidence to the Petitions Committee in advance of a parliamentary debate on 5 June. 

In Mark’s view the flaws in universities’ duty of care lie in funding. He said most universities run at a deficit every year, making less money than they spend, which forces them to increase the number of students they accept. However, the number of faculty members does not increase with the number of students. 

He said: “I’m a senior personal tutor at the moment. I might have had 30 people to look after a few years ago, but now I have 60. That means I can’t give quite the same personal attention to everybody. So the resources are stretched equally.”

According to Mark, introducing a statutory duty of care will create a minimum standard of mental health care that all universities have to meet. 

It will also make universities accountable for the effectiveness of their mental health services, putting pressure on them to improve these processes. 

“My own experience with the University of Sheffield was that it had not learned from previous suicides and did not learn from the death of my son. Nothing much changed,” he said.

“If there is a worry that somebody is at risk of taking their life, we have to act in the best interest of that student. And that may well be by proactively phoning a contact. This is what we would like to do with statutory duty of care, students would define who that contact would be every year, possibly even every term, so the university can reach out to and say they think that person is in trouble.”

The University of Sheffield did not make a statement in relation Rory’s suicide specifically. 

“At Sheffield we have worked hard to ensure we have the right support structures in place to keep our student community safe and well, including taking a proactive approach to mental health by focussing efforts on the preventative end of the spectrum,” it said. 

“In 2020, we introduced faculty-based Wellbeing Advisers, which has been a significant intervention for the University. Those colleagues are able to act as a bridge between personal tutors and other more specialist and clinical services, as well working to resolve problems at source.”