TW: talk of suicide
Imagine this: a student living in a university residence contacts his Residence Life don. He has fallen and injured himself, and there is blood everywhere. He is afraid he might die. He needs help.
Surely in this scenario the don would seek immediate assistance for the student. They would bring him to a clinic or perhaps a hospital. Once the student had recovered, they would welcome him back to residence – maybe even put up a banner or throw a little party.
Certainly the student would not be asked to leave the residence.
Yet recently when a similar situation happened at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, the student in question, Blake Robert, was told to pack his bags and get out.
The difference is that in the real-life version of this story, Robert wasn’t physically sick or injured. Instead, he was depressed and struggling with suicidal ideation. After reaching out to his Residence Life don, Robert was told that he could no longer remain in student housing because he was “a threat” to other students. He was told that if he were to die on campus, it would have a “negative impact on the psychological well-being of other students in residence.”
As he put it so succinctly in his article for Acadia’s student newspaper, Robert was basically being told to go die somewhere else.
Normally I don’t like to compare physical ailments with mental health issues, mostly because I feel like doing so often validates the exact position that it’s trying to deconstruct – namely, that we still live in a society that considers physical injuries or illnesses to somehow be more real and more worthy of time and attention than mental illness. I don’t want people to accept my mental health struggles because they’re pretending it’s the same as me having diabetes – I want folks to accept that I’m struggling with something that is scary and occasionally makes me want to die and is in fact nothing like diabetes. However, in this case I think examining an institution’s reaction to a mental health crisis versus how it would likely react to a different type of health crisis is fair; doing so shows the clear stigma and lack of understanding that still persist when it comes to mental illness.
The bald facts are that had Robert contacted his Residence Life don about a broken leg or the stomach flu or a bout of pneumonia, he would have been given prompt medical attention and no one would have breathed a word about him leaving student housing. Instead, the don spoke to him in person, set up an appointment for him with student counselling, and then two days later was part of a team of people telling Robert that he needed to leave because he wasn’t “safe” in residence. Apparently the best way to ensure someone’s safety is to remove them from their support network without any plan or offers of assistance. No wonder Robert felt as if he was being sent off campus to die; he was basically being told that the university wanted him to go to a place where he was no longer their problem.
At no point did anyone take Robert to the university health clinic or the hospital.
At no point was he given the chance to advocate for himself.
Instead, Robert was subjected to a disciplinary meeting where he was told that he might perhaps be allowed back into residence in September, if he was healthy enough. He was told that the Residence Life manager’s word was final; there was no chance for appeal. The Residence Life manager said to Robert that Residence Life dons are essentially like “landlords” and can’t be expected to care for students with mental health issues. Of course, this completely ignores the fact that an actual landlord wouldn’t be able to evict a tenant because of mental illness.
“… Had I actually broken clearly expressed rules, or otherwise willingly threatened the safety of other students, I would have been afforded due process through Non-Academic Judicial, perhaps involving the RCMP. But suffering from a life-threatening mental illness is apparently seen as such an egregious crime and so dangerous that Student Services’ executive director, in charge of counselling, accessibility services, Residence Life, etc., found it acceptable that I was promptly ejected from campus without warning.”
Just let that sink in – a student accused of committing a crime would likely have found themselves in a safer position than Robert did.
A student with pretty much any type of physical illness would have been offered some kind of care.
Instead, Robert was treated as if he was worse than a criminal.
Imagine being in a place that is so dark and frightening that you are sure the only way out is to die. Imagine being in that place and allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to share how you feel with someone else. Now imagine that this person’s response is to tell you to get the hell out before you scare anyone. Imagine that, unlike Robert, you don’t have parents who live less than an hour away and can come pick you up. Where do you go? What do you do? And more to the point how is any of this supposed to alleviate what you’re feeling?
Sadly, Robert’s case is not uncommon – a similar story came out of Yale last year, and the psychiatrist Robert later saw at a local hospital said that universities often deal with suicidal students in this way. This is the lived reality for people living with mental illness – you’re sick, you’re so fucking sick that you might die, but don’t you dare tell anyone about it. Even the people who are supposed to help you are just as likely to hurt you.
I am so angry right now. I am angry and sad that this shit is still happening and huge institutions like universities are getting away with it.
This is why people don’t disclose mental illness. This is why people don’t ask for help. This is why people suffer and sometimes die without ever saying a word. This. This. This.
Where the hell are Bell Let’s Talk and “end the stigma” all that other feel-good bullshit when stuff like this happens?