One student was mistakenly expelled and others say they have been discriminated against and left “feeling hopeless” as a result of the University’s policies for handling students with mental illness.
Criticism has also been levelled at the University’s practices regarding essay extensions and the bureaucracy of the student support system, with some saying it adds to the stress of dealing with mental illness. Others have complained about the quality of the help they received.
James Smith*, who has now been diagnosed as bipolar but has also suffered from various sleep disorders for a number of years, said he felt that he was treated differently to students with a visible illness after he was expelled while he was seeking psychiatric treatment for his condition.
Before the start of this academic year, Mr Smith requested a leave of absence and sent a letter to the pro-dean, in which he stated that he would be starting psychiatric treatment. However, his leave of absence was not approved because he did not state how long he intended it to be. The University sent him several emails and letters, but his condition meant he was unable to read or reply to their requests. The University did not contact his emergency contacts. He was later expelled from the University because he had not registered or confirmed how long he would like to remain on leave.
Mr Smith expressed his frustration: “I feel that if a student disappears, [the University] needs to contact somebody**, and if it’s a serious situation like termination of studies and they are not responding through the normal channels, just letting the system automatically continue on is not something that other universities would do. They have my emergency contact details. All they had to do was address a letter to my mother.”
In his appeal to the University, he said: “I should also like to briefly express my displeasure with the fact that this fiasco was allowed to take place as it did. Both I and my family strongly feel that my failure to arrive in halls, my failure to register, and my failure to respond to email or mail should have merited some concern. Since it was clear that I was missing, it would have been appropriate to contact my family so as to ensure my safety, which would have prevented this mess from happening in the first place.
“It is disturbing to think that a student who fails to arrive on time, whether by misfortune or illness, would not be considered missing, and that no effort would be made to contact that student’s family. And it is disturbing to think that, after having informed the University of a medical and psychiatric condition, this chain of events still took place, simply because I did not state the exact amount of leave I would require – something which was unknown at that time.”
Although Mr Smith was able to appeal and eventually returned to the University, the situation caused considerable extra stress for a student who was already having problems. He said: “I was able to appeal this but it wasn’t easy. When it finally came to light that this had happened, my condition worsened.”
No standardised policy
Mr Smith also felt that he had been discriminated against during his time studying here, owing to the lack of a standardised University policy on how staff should deal with students with mental illness.
At one point before his leave of absence, his condition worsened and he was unable to sleep properly for a number of weeks. Around this time he was required to submit a number of pieces of coursework, and because of his situation he asked for an extension. One professor offered a short two-day extension but Mr Smith felt this was not enough time and asked for more to complete the essay because he was still having problems. However, this extension was refused and he was unable to complete the coursework, causing him to fail the module.
He said: “Every day I went to the library and I tried to read, and I could read the same sentence over and over and over again and I wouldn’t remember what was at the beginning by the time I got to the end. There was no way in that week that I could do the work that needed to be done. I needed an extra week. One professor gave it to me and I turned that essay in. After fighting with the other professor, the most he would give me was three days.
“Honestly, it made my condition worse because it was crushing and the problem we have at this point is that students in that situation can’t represent themselves very well. I tried. I went to Student Services. I went to the pro dean and what they told me was that basically that the departments can decide what it means to accommodate special needs.”
Although Student Services will help students with mental illnesses to receive support and register as disabled, this can be interpreted in different ways by different professors. The inconsistency can make students who are having problems more anxious about asking for help. Mr Smith explained that “just the knowledge that they’ll work with you stops the cycle”.
Mr Smith also said that he felt he had been treated differently, arguing: “If a student is in the hospital for seven days and can’t do the reading or do the work, then they definitely would give them seven days to do the work.”
He continued: “It seems to me that the problems that people have here generally come down to the system.
“Sometimes you’ll get a professor, who doesn’t for whatever reason, doesn’t want to, in my opinion, follow the rules or make any sort of concession. What really angered me was that I had gone to all the lectures and tutorials and I had started working on the essay. I was interested and I wanted to do the essay.”
Dr Christine Lusk, the director of Student Services, said that the University does not have a standardised policy because of the variation in course structure across departments: “It’s the same with all UK universities; things aren’t standardised in the University. What you get in art history, for example, won’t be the same as everywhere else because it depends on the way that the course is weighted and it depends on how you have performed in that course.
“If you feel you you’re being treated unfairly by somebody and you’re not getting the allowances and you’ve got some medical condition or special circumstances, then the University pays for somebody in Student Services to listen to these people and appeal on their behalf.
“If you’re asking for a day’s extension on an essay that is 10 per cent of your mark, that’s very different to asking for a two week extension on an exam that is 50 per cent of your mark, so it can’t be standardised, but what we have got is advocates that work with Student Services.”
But Mr Smith said: “When I had difficulty, I was treated as though I was a bad student and I didn’t study, and the stupid thing was the reason I wasn’t failing my degree was because I was studying so hard and working so hard. The assumption is that if somebody has problems it’s their own fault and it’s a very dangerous assumption to make.”
Student Services problems
Students who are worried about their mental health can contact Student Services, where they will be assessed by a support advisor who will work with them to determine the next step. If they are suffering from serious mental illness, they will be referred for counselling.
Dr Lusk expressed pride in the University’s support structure. She called the service offered “bespoke” and said it is tailored to the needs of each student. She said: “We do everything in our power to put in place alternative formats… We’ve got a host of different things we put in place for people to help them help themselves and we help them help themselves.”
This includes a cognitive behavioural therapy councillor and online courses for students. But despite Dr Lusk’s reassurances, Mr Smith had concerns about the quality of care that Student Services provides. After he contacted them asking for help with his essay extension, he found them slow to reply and on one occasion they did not reply to his email at all.
Other students have echoed his worries. Sam Jones*, another student who has used the service, criticised the help on offer: “Personally, I have had varied experiences with Student Services. After being diagnosed with mental health issues I was first told to get in touch with them. I began counselling and found comfort confiding in one particular counsellor.
“However, my counsellor left, and for too long a time Student Services made no effort to set me up with another counsellor. I then had to go back through the whole system from the beginning to receive more help. My condition had worsened by this point.”
Mr Jones said he felt that not enough is done to follow up on students who are struggling. He stopped attending counselling at the beginning of this academic year but has not been contacted by Student Services.
He explained: “I went to my first meeting with this new counsellor optimistic but found their attitude patronising and overall was left with the impression that they were unprofessional and unqualified. I never returned to my second cognitive behavioural therapy session and this was never followed up.
“I can recall Student Services were almost smug about the fact that the NHS waiting list is significantly longer, which I believe is great, but I think it’s a shame that they pride themselves on a service which left this student more hopeless than I was to begin with.”
Dr Lusk explained that Student Services try to be proactive in dealing with students who are having problems. Members of staff check self-certificates of absence and contact students who may be suffering from long term problems but who have not looked for help. She also said that they are assisted by students who ask for help for their friends, and they are also now encouraging worried parents to speak to Student Services so they can offer help to the child.
She admitted that some students do slip through the net, although she says this is less likely at St Andrews than at other universities because of the measures in place here. Student Services deals with a large number of students each day and man will experience mental health problems at some point during their time in St Andrews. Dr Lusk said there has been a “tidal wave” of people using the service recently, with a 38 percent increase in students asking for help during the last semester.
Asked whether this may be a result of the loss of Reading Week, she said she was unsure but stressed that universities across the UK have seen similar increases. To help deal with the increase the University has agreed to increase funding for Student Services, which will soon be moving to a new office at Eden Court.
Although St Andrews has a good record when it comes to waiting times for counselling – students can expect to see a support advisor within three days and a counsellor within a week and a half – some students feel that this -personalised experience that does not provide enough help.
Scott Simpson*, who has used Student Services, said: “In my experience, the Student Services at the University fail to provide students with suitable personalised care, putting a lot of people off going back.
“I also feel that there is a lack of genuine concern for students’ mental wellbeing, as you always leave feeling like a number on the list rather than a person.”
The University has responded to this article here.
*All student names have been changed to protect the identity of those concerned.
** The University’s missing student policy is here.
- Updated 7 March with several clarifications