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University of Bristol medical student hanged himself while on placement at hospital, inquest hears

A bright University of Bristol medical student hanged himself while on placement at a hospital after becoming uncertain whether he wanted to be a doctor, an inquest heard. 

Matthew Ward, who suffered from depression, was ‘worried’ about being away from his support network on the placement and took his own life the first time he was alone there.

The 21-year-old student sought to reassure his family and university about his mental health issues but his mother said ‘he was sadly very good at hiding how he really felt’.

Wiltshire and Swindon Coroners’ Service heard he was found hanged just before 10pm on October 18 last year in his room at staff accommodation at Swindon’s Great Western Hospital. 

Mr Ward’s death is the latest in a spate of more than a dozen student suicides at the University of Bristol in recent years.

Matthew Ward, who suffered from depression, was ‘worried’ about being away from his support network on the placement and took his own life the first time he was alone there

The third-year medicine student was stressed at the start of the year over whether to defer for a year due to his mental health.

After spending time in September last year with his ‘support network’ of close friends who he lived with in Bristol, he was ‘cheerful’ and decided to continue with the year and went on his placement.

However, when his Bristol flatmate had to isolate due to Covid, Mr Ward was faced to spend the weekend alone at his hospital accommodation and hanged himself.

The keen guitarist left handwritten notes for parents Alistair and Erica Ward, telling them he has ‘loved them the entirety of his life’, as well as handwritten poems.

At the inquest, his family said in a statement: ‘Despite being a strapping lad, Matthew was deeply sensitive and took disappointment badly.’

The inquest also heard ‘he was a high achiever who put great pressure on himself’.

Mr Ward had been prescribed anti-depressants following a diagnosis of depression and had regular check-ups with student health services.

He had low moods, anxiety, spent long periods of time in bed, had little energy, and put on more than four stone at university.

Wiltshire and Swindon Coroners' Service heard he was found hanged just before 10pm on October 18 last year in his room at staff accommodation at Swindon's Great Western Hospital

Wiltshire and Swindon Coroners’ Service heard he was found hanged just before 10pm on October 18 last year in his room at staff accommodation at Swindon’s Great Western Hospital

Dr Nicola Taylor, senior lecturer at the university’s medical school, spoke to him about deferring for a year but Matthew chose to stay on.

She told the inquest: ‘He felt overwhelmed. He was not sure whether he wanted to be a doctor. There was no indication he wanted to take his own life, if I had concerns that he was suicidal I would have taken steps.’

His family visited him in Bristol to celebrate his birthday late in September, just a few weeks before his death.

‘We parted and told him we love him and that was the last time we saw him’, the family said.

When Mr Ward was facing his first weekend alone, his parents said he could stay at home with them in Lincoln, but he turned them down because he was due to see them the following two weekends.

The inquest heard he told his parents: ‘Don’t be silly, I can’t see you three weekends in a row.’ 

His family said: ‘It would seem at that stage Matthew had made his mind up to take his own life.’

Mr Ward's death is the latest in a spate of more than a dozen student suicides at the University of Bristol in recent years (pictured, the Wills Memorial Building)

Mr Ward’s death is the latest in a spate of more than a dozen student suicides at the University of Bristol in recent years (pictured, the Wills Memorial Building)

Mr Ward previously reported ‘suicidal ideations’ to student health services and in the weeks before his death reported feeling ‘worthless’, ‘finding university stressful’ and was ‘worried about living away from his support network’.

Two university mental health care workers said they were ‘not concerned about significant risk’ and Mr Ward was ‘lively to talk to’.

However, his mother told the inquest her son hid the extent of his problems. She said: ‘He was sadly very good at hiding how he really felt. There must have been times he was hiding them from us as well.’

Alison Golden-Wright, the university’s director of student health, said: ‘He would speak to reassure staff that he was not going to take his own life… people were reassured by him, he presented well.’

Mrs Ward also spoke of her regret and said the coronavirus pandemic worsened things.

She said: ‘Matthew said in non-Covid times there [hospital placement] would be social life, but because of Covid it was limited and there was nothing to do.

‘I was concerned about him but I didn’t do anything about that apart from talk to him and I have lots of what-ifs, what if we did more?

‘Covid was not the reason he took his life but it didn’t help, the social isolation didn’t help. I don’t think he liked having to stay overnight away from his support network in Bristol.’

Medical student Aidan Warren, also on the placement, said in the days before his death he and Mr Ward played guitar together and they agreed to do it again but he felt he ‘was talking through his teeth’ and didn’t mean it.

Ms Golden-Wright said the university has implemented new measures since Mr Ward’s suicide such as expanding staff suicide intervention training.

Coroner Ian Singleton said: ‘Matthew, while a medical student, suffered from anxiety and low moods and as a result had a loss of energy and started binge eating. He had suicidal thoughts without plans or intention.

‘In September 2020 he was considering deferring and was uncertain about whether he wanted to be a doctor.

‘He took a placement which took him away from his support network, he was left alone and the last known time he accessed his phone was on September 17. He was found in his room deceased.’

For confidential support, call the Samaritans on 116123 or visit a local Samaritans branch. See www.samaritans.org for details. 

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