Letter to the editor: University responds to mental health articles

16

In response to ‘Student mistakenly expelled due to University mental health policy‘ by Laura Abernethy (6 March 2014) and ‘Mental health – we must speak out‘ (Editorial, 6 March 2014).

Sir,

On Thursday last week you published two seriously misleading and unbalanced items about the way the University handles mental health issues among students. The University welcomes constructive debate and will always respond to student concerns when they are justified. However, your reports perpetuated unfounded allegations and misunderstandings from anonymous sources, and contained demonstrable errors.

On behalf of the University, I wish to respond to The Saint on two counts: I should like to set out three important aspects of the University’s mission and record of supporting students with mental health issues; and I wish to take issue with The Saint’s editorial approach to the matter. I do not propose to work in tedious detail through the large number of misleading and inaccurate statements in your coverage: you already know – or should do – where you were mistaken.

First, then, let me say that support is provided to students not only by Student Services, but by various Units and potentially all Schools of the University, as well as by services of the Students’ Association, all of whom take their duties very seriously. In addition to the Pro Deans and Student Services, mentioned in your articles, there are Residence Wardens, Registry officers, the Chaplaincy, the Deans and others. Feedback from students who respond to the annual Student Barometer and International Student Barometer surveys suggests that the vast majority of users rate these services very highly; indeed St Andrews tends to be consistently in the top two to three universities polled.

That said, if students are unhappy with the support they receive, there are channels open to them to voice their concerns, starting with the DoRep (whose work this year on mental health matters has been exemplary) and the elected Students’ Association Welfare Officer, via the University’s Student Services ‘request for feedback’ web-page, all the way through to myself as senior University manager responsible for student welfare. I wish to stress that any justified complaint will always be heard, without prejudice. However, it is only right and fair that such queries and complaints should follow a proper and carefully prescribed process if we are to protect both the student and the member(s) of staff concerned. I would ask what process The Saint followed – that is to say, whether you demanded to see evidence and adequately assured yourselves of the validity of the very serious claims made by the sources underpinning your coverage.

It remains the case that the headline and central claim of your article is utterly false. No student was expelled, far less ‘mistakenly expelled due to University mental health policy’ as you alleged.

Second, your readers may not know – and you have done nothing to enlighten them – that dedicated University staff routinely and unquestioningly work long hours, track down students, put them in touch with appropriate services and support them, all in pursuit of our mission to provide an excellent academic education, and to support students who need help to pursue – and achieve – that academic goal for themselves. Yet in the context of your report it is important to point out that the University is bound by law in certain circumstances, for example in the matter of sharing information with a student’s family. Our students being adults, we would be breaking the law if we were to contact their families in circumstances other than those demonstrably presenting a clear and urgent threat to life.  You do not seek to make your readers aware of this, despite the existence of clear guidance (which you might have consulted) on our website about how to deal with the case of a missing student, and about what information the University is able to share with parents.

Third, I wish to make it perfectly clear that our staff in the University, and specifically in Student Services, are highly qualified people who undergo regular professional development training throughout the year to maintain standards. Your article carries a completely unfounded allegation to the contrary, which is a very serious claim indeed. Hiding behind the notion that this allegation was the opinion of one of your anonymous  ‘sources’ is a woefully inadequate excuse for weak journalism and editorial policy: any self-respecting newspaper would check the validity of such an assertion before appearing to condone it by giving it valuable column space. You have already acknowledged to me that The Saint does not believe this claim, yet you published it, without checking, and continue to give it credence and weight by allowing it to remain in the online version of your article, which as of today has been read by upwards of 4500 people.

This brings me to my other main point, namely the matter of The Saint’s editorial approach to the present issue.

Since (on the evidence of several communications received by the University) the irresponsible and inaccurate material published by The Saint was clearly causing significant anxiety among vulnerable students by Thursday evening, I took the unusual step of approaching you on Friday morning last week to demonstrate that your reporting was faulty. I asked you to address the factual errors in your texts, as well as their misleading elements, affront to staff and effects on anxious students whose confidence in their support arrangements was being needlessly undermined. In total, I drew your attention to more than 30 factual errors and points of concern in your articles. I noted that you had not given the University the opportunity to address the detailed claims and allegations in your articles before you published them.

Rather than removing the items from your website and issuing an apology, it appears that you have simply attempted to cover up the shortcomings of your report and editorial by tampering quietly with the original texts, introducing a couple of cosmetic changes and saying the items had been ‘updated’ with ‘clarifications’. In fact, these ‘clarifications’ are close to meaningless: both pieces remain thoroughly misleading, factually incorrect and unbalanced. You acknowledged to me on Friday that you recognised the most serious allegations in your coverage to be untrue, yet inexplicably you have still not removed these. A reasonable person would be entitled to conclude (on this evidence) that The Saint is not interested in students’ mental health at all, nor in basic standards of journalism, but in scaremongering, sensationalism and saving its own face.

There is some excellent writing in The Saint, and I am proud not only that St Andrews has a number of first-rate journalists in the making, but also that we remain a community which believes passionately in the freedom of the press. However, this episode raises serious questions about The Saint‘s editorial ethics and I find it hard to see how the University can cooperate in future with a paper that has acted in such a deeply untrustworthy manner.

By contrast, I am glad to say that many good channels of communication do exist between the University and student representatives, whose reasonable and truly representative approach enables open dialogue on all aspects of students’ wellbeing. My colleagues and I will be delighted to continue to work with Sabbatical Officers and others to achieve the best support possible for everyone in St Andrews who needs it.

I hope that when you have had a chance to reflect on your actions you will conclude that it is appropriate to own up to your mistakes and apologise, both to the vulnerable students to whom you have caused needless anxiety, and to the University staff, especially in Student Services, whose code of ethics and commitment to confidentiality mean that they are necessarily precluded from bringing evidence to defend themselves against such public attack.

Yours faithfully,

Professor Lorna Milne
Vice-Principal (Proctor)

16 COMMENTS

  1. While I do not know the specifics of the allegation about the student being expelled, I find this letter utterly soul-destroying. From the comments on The Saint’s article, from the petition, and also personal experience, there is certainly a problem with mental health at this university that is not being fully addressed. This is not to say that those who are involved with the current system for dealing mental health issues do not work tirelessly and are doing anything wrong – I am certain that they do an excellent job.

    A far better response than this bullying, reactionary letter would be to acknowledge the fact there is a problem with mental health and pledge to employ more staff, give more training to existing staff and review how the current system could be improved upon. Instead the response seems to be to accuse The Saint of being in the wrong. To accuse them of being the ones causing distress and hardship rather than actually evaluating the full situation which would clearly show that the university is far more to blame for the current situation than a newspaper article. I hope that when you have had a chance to reflect on your actions you will conclude that it is appropriate to own up to your mistakes and give better provision for dealing with mental health at St Andrews.

    I commend The Saint for publishing this. It seems that the sole purpose of this letter is to give the impression that the university is above criticism and send a warning shot to those who may in the future wish to highlight the more serious shortcomings of the university. That is a disgraceful stance to take.

    http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/university-of-st-andrews-improve-student-services-help-for-people-with-mental-illnesses

  2. “Feedback from students who respond to the annual Student Barometer and International Student Barometer surveys suggests that the vast majority of users rate these services very highly;”

    The most recent results if the Student Barometer survey of St Andrews that are public are from 2009. Even then only 24% of domestic students responded. Surely this is not an accurate indicator of satisfaction with student services.
    Perhaps if the university is serious about this, they could have more accessible ways of giving feedback about this, such as anonymous surveys in student services?

  3. This letter is an absolute disgrace. Where is there any sort of apology to the students that they have let down? Rather than admitting that more could be done (and more can always be done) to tackle this problem, the University arrogantly condemns The Saint for reporting on the story.

  4. On the contrary, I think this letter is to be commended! If you’re going to make bullshit claims about an organisation that has a vested interest in the wellbeing and welfare of its students then you’d bloody better be prepared to answer for it.

    Toughen up and respond appropriately if you think you’ve been wronged, but by the looks of things you’re in an untenable position. How can you not expect the University to respond – and in a pretty engaging way – when you make bold claims about its handling of students mental health?

    Maybe you wanted a response like this? Maybe you’d hoped to bring the system down?

    All I know is you got #burned.

  5. With respect the Saint did not report the story. It presented anonymous opinion as fact, made cavalier allegations about the professional qualifications of staff (which have transpired to be completely untrue) and carried out a fairly pointed attack on staff who it knew would be unable to defend themselves.Read prof Milne’s response – “no student was expelled, far less mistakenly expelled.” The main claim on which this article was based is false. The claim about counsellors lacking qualifications is false. What else did they get wrong? According to Prof Milne, the day after the article was published she drew the Saint’s attention to over 30 “errors and inconsistencies” and asked for these to be corrected in the face of evidence that the article was causing actual distress and difficulty to vulnerable students. the Saint then appears to have admitted that it did not itself believe the claims of its sources. but had chosen to publish therm anyway, without giving the university the opportunity to address them or offer any balance.The headline on the story and much of its content are now revealed as lies, but they remain uncorrected? This is appalling journalism, in fact it’s not even journalism, and Professor Milne is quite right to call it out as such.

    • I am not usually a fan of The Saint’s articles but to be fair to them your comment isn’t correct. If you read the original article the sources are anonymised not anonymous. Apart from saying the claims are false Ms Milne does not back this up with evidence, the “tedious detail” is the bit we actually want. Instead she simply engages in unhelpful mudslinging. If the accusations are entirely fictional then I’m sure rather than writing a letter to the editor there would be legal and disciplinary consequences for these students’ actions. I suppose this is still a possibility, time will tell. But the fact that The Saint have kept the original article online with minor readjustments suggests to me that The Saint still believe the main claims and whatever “evidence” Ms Milne has is not sufficient to refute their sources.

      It will be interesting to see what the response comes from The Saint is to these accusations. If it turns out that the article is a work of fiction, as Ms Milne suggests, then I agree that is disgraceful journalism.

  6. It’s not a work of fiction, that would be unfair to the Saint writers. I think they probably approached it in good faith but quickly got out of their depth, confused facts with opinion, failed to check facts and made editorial choices which resulted in a sensationalised front page and article whose founding claims have turned out to be false.Good journalism requires a difficult balance of independent power with responsibility. In this case, there is little evidence of any of the latter being exercised, at least until the point they agreed to publish Prof Milne’s response, the best part of a week after they were first asked to address serious errors.It is not for Prof Milne to have to prove the allegations are false when no evidence has been led (other than anonymised opinion) to the contrary. The saddest thing about all this is that it has probably done little to advance the cause of mental health, but has undoubtedly dented staff morale and seriously undermined trust and respect.

    • Even if the Saint reported falsifications in good faith, failing to fact check sources is simply inadmissible for a serious journalist. If Prof. Milne’s claims are correct, the university would be well within its rights to sue the Saint for libel under UK law (which is significantly less permissive of libellous claims than US law). The defence against libel is simply to report the truth. It is evident that the Saint willingly misrepresented the facts, and got key elements of the original story completely wrong. Moreover, they presented the experience of 3 anonymous sources (don’t get me started on spurious anonymisation) as the typical experience in dealing with the University faculties for mental health, which while perhaps not libellous, is very misleading and in fact quite damaging to the University’s reputation and to students that might now be discouraged to seek help.

      The original piece is one of the worst things I’ve read in student media in this town, not because it’s simply bad journalism but equally because it has now cast serious aspersions on a university service that is a) supererogatory and b) very helpful to many students. Every special snowflake commenting on the original article, chiming in with “this was my experience too! I didn’t pass because the nasty university didn’t accommodate my disability” — mental health support for students is a voluntary service from the university and it obviously won’t work for every student. If they are unwilling to cooperate, as with some of the students in the original article, I am at a loss for how the University is meant to help. Take some accountability. If they truly needed help, seek a medical professional, not a university. Just because the University isn’t performing a service that you might need doesn’t make them irresponsible. It’s the students responsibility to seek help the appropriate places.

    • I’ve been through this system. This article is not sensationalist to me, simply resonant. I’d have loved to know earlier that my case wasn’t exceptional and representative – this would ideally have been the next constructive step, one Lorna has sidestepped.

      I’d love to talk to the press about what I went through as a student here. If I released the story to a Stand journalist my story would have little credibility. It was not only bizarre and sinister but so much so that many wouldn’t believe it from a small student press. Names give you the credibility to advance your causes, Lorna is lucky in this respect, while the Stand isn’t. The onus unfortunately has fallne somehow on them to make a watertight peice of investigation, something the university is more able to do but yet likely won’t undertake themselves.

      Disbelief that comes from hearing things far outside one’s field of experience is what I’m getting from the vitriolic comments in the university’s defence. The stories above are less sensationalist, more representative, than these critics believe or that even I thought was the case before reading the original article, before reading the comments below it and before actively contacintg writers whose area of reserach are relevant to the issues raised.

      Reading the article before contacting SS wouldn’t have deterred me from trying their help given the state I found myself in at St Andrews. In fact, the ‘sensationalism’ of the article is so accurately summative of how I remember my experience of living in St Andrews that I wish I’d read more writing like it before I wasted several years there. This article is not damaging or inappropriate. The opposite.

  7. Lets take a step back here!!!!

    What was reported was… A REPORT! If this were in the viewpoint section, you could fire away with your nonsense on unbalanced articles and not giving the other side’s opinion etc. This was simply a voice of several students who had had a bad time with student services, and it followed a completely correct reporting of an expulsion (or termination of studies) of said student in question. No problems here. Find something else to wail about.

    On a side note, this response from Professor Lorna Milne is by far the most disgusting, patronising and ludicrously fatuous piece of script I have ever read from a staff member in a highly regarded institution. Her “30 factual errors and points of concern” are in fact “30 opinions of Lorna on why I disagree and how the possibility of anything this University does being bad is a ludicrous assertion”. Shame on her for this “sensationalist response”.

    • You clearly don’t understand the duty of press organisations. If the original article had been in the viewpoint section, The Saint would have probably received less flak. Since it’s in the News section, paraded around as a scoop and treated like a factual report, the Saint (and Laura Abernathy, who wrote it) is assuming responsibility for the factual correctness of the article. Newspapers reporting on a story have a duty to fact-check their sources, verify them, and report them in a manner that doesn’t distort the facts. Since a high-up representative of the University has responded so aggressively, it is evident that the Saint has misrepresented the facts of the matter. Who do you trust, the professional paid to know about the University, or the Saint relating the experiences of 3 disaffected mentally ill students? In the UK, press organisations are legally bound to follow a certain code of conduct, or they risk being sued for libel. The Saint is lucky that they are getting away with a mere slap on the wrist. Even so, I wouldn’t want to be in their press office (read: broom closet) right now.

      Your comment reminds me of that old South Park joke.

      “- We have no reports of casualties yet, but we believe the casualties to be in the hundreds of millions. We’re not sure what’s going on in town, but we are reporting looting and chaos.

      – My god, you’ve seen this?

      – No, we haven’t actually seen it Tom, we’re just reporting it”

      This attitude to media organisations needs to stop. They can’t report falsities with impunity. They have a duty to verify with the university if they are publishing such serious allegations, and at least get a statement from a university representative first. The Saint did none of these things.

    • This is a very well written professional letter and nicely voices all my concerns with the original articles. No where does Prof Milne say that students with mental health issues always get everything possible from the University automatically. Instead, she listed the many different resources available as well as the limits of these resources.

    • Hey,

      Many thanks for the article. Yours was the only piece I’ve ever read about the university that resonated closely with my own experiences whilst I attended.

      As for the ‘spurious’ anonymity, I’d think the last thing your three sources would need is a further erosion of their privacy in a town the size and nature of St Andrews. Particularly when their concerns and anger are met with this.

      By all means, let me know whether you’re interested in knowing more about my own ‘libellous’ slander.

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