Photo: Sammi McKee
Photo: Sammi McKee

The Director of Teaching for the School of English recommended that a student whom she knew to be suffering from clinical depression consider leaving the University following multiple tutorial absences.

The student in question, Joshua Teo, had received two level nine academic alerts: one from the School of English and one from the School of History. Mr Teo had missed two consecutive history and three consecutive English tutorials. One of Mr Teo’s history tutorials was missed as a direct result of his depression, while the other was because of a prior commitment.

For English, again two of Mr Teo’s tutorials were missed because of his mental health issues while the other was missed because of a prior commitment.

Following the academic alerts, Mr Teo emailed both his history and English tutors to explain the absences, including details of his mental health problems.

He wrote, “I’m very sorry that I’ve been repeatedly absent from tutorials recently. This is not intentional, and I have no intention of quitting the module or anything like that.

“Last week I was ill. I suffer from clinically diagnosed depression, and that’s why I didn’t make it to your class. The depression is an ongoing issue that I am taking medication for, but it can be very difficult to work under depressed conditions.”

He went on to say, “I understand that the faculty’s regulations may not accommodate so extreme a chain of continuous absences. If they are to be taken as a disciplinary matter I am prepared to accept the consequences.”

In his email to the school of English, Mr Teo also apologised for needing to miss an additional tutorial later that week as a result of a prior job commitment.

When speaking to The Saint about his reason for sending the emails, Mr Teo said: “The goal of the original email was to explain to my tutors why I had been absent. I don’t think a string of absences like that is tolerable either, and I wanted to apologise.”

Following his email to his history tutor, Mr Teo went to see his history module coordinator, Dr Matthew MacLean, as the School of History guidelines are “slightly stricter” than that of the School of English, according to Mr Teo.

On his meeting with Dr MacLean, Mr Teo stated: “He very kindly excused me and kept me on a level nine academic alert instead of a level 10 which would have resulted in an automatic dismissal.”

However, Mr Teo said he was disappointed with the manner in which the School of English handled the issue.

Mr Teo’s English tutor forwarded his email to the Director of Teaching for the School of English without his consent, a violation of the University’s mental health and wellbeing policy.

The confidentiality clause of the policy states that it is the responsibility of University staff to uphold confidentiality in all cases where the individual is not a risk to him/herself or to others.

Mr Teo then received an email from the Director of Teaching, in which he was encouraged to leave the University. The email said, “I have to warn you that five absences from tutorials and lectures and English will mean removal of module credits for you.

“If you miss a fifth class (lecture or tutorial), for whatever reason (including physical or mental illness), we will remove your module credits.

“Given your lack of engagement with your university work, I would recommend that you consider leaving the university. You may be happier in a job, nearer your friends and London.”

The email concluded with a website link to a page on the University website titled, “Withdrawal and Leave of Absence,” which details the procedural necessities for requesting both a temporary and permanent leave from the University.

Upon receiving the email, Mr Teo said he felt both angry and concerned: “I had not given permission for the email to be forwarded to anyone. It had been intended for my tutor and my tutor alone,” he said.

He continued, “I was angry, very angry but what I was really worried about was what could have happened had the email been sent to someone in a more vulnerable state.

“I know several such people that might well have harmed themselves or done something that they would probably regret had they been thinking clearly. To say that these people don’t exist is blatantly untrue.”

Mr Teo stated that he believed the Director of Teaching’s “actions were contradictory” with regard to University mental health policy.

Indeed the University’s mental health and wellbeing policy states that the University aims to, “provide an environment in which staff and students who have mental health difficulties receive suitable support and adjustments to their work or study circumstances to allow them to achieve their fullest potential.”

Mr Teo stated that despite the University’s policy, there is still a stigma surrounding mental illness in St Andrews. He said, “The email specifically stated that neither physical nor mental illness would be seen as an adequate excuse for skipping tutorials.

“However, if someone hadn’t shown up to tutorials because they had been throwing up for three weeks from a virulent stomach bug, they’d probably be excused.

“I don’t see why that shouldn’t be extended to someone with depression because it’s debilitating. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

Mr Teo went on to say that his “problem isn’t with the University at large, but rather with the actions taken by one member of staff.” He said, “You cannot extrapolate the behaviour of an entire university based off of one staff member, but the fact that this was possible means two things.

“It means it may have happened before and that it could happen again in the future.

“The guidelines should be tightened as to ensure that such a thing doesn’t happen to anyone again.”

In response to this matter, a spokesperson for the University said: “It would be utterly wrong to discuss individual cases or the factual accuracy or otherwise of such claims in a public forum such as a student newspaper. We have a duty of care and confidentiality to all our students and staff, which we take very seriously.

“We understand the challenges which some students and staff may face in study and work as a result of mental or physical illnesses, and have robust and very sympathetic systems in place to offer appropriate support where help has been sought for an illness or disability.

“The strength of these systems and the willingness of our students to work positively with that support means that St Andrews has maintained one of the lowest drop-out rates in Europe for over a decade.

“Staff who teach in our schools or work in our key central support services have to be able to share information of relevance about their students– only on a need to know basis– to ensure that the University can respond appropriately and take the fairest and most appropriate action.”

Director of Representation (DoRep) Joe Tantillo, whose responsibilities include overseeing student mental health and wellbeing for the Students Association, said that the situation “articulates the need for a review of extenuating circumstances policy.”

He continued, “This is something we’ve already started looking at but when matters like this come to our attention it gives us more fuel to push [policy] through faster and to make sure that other students aren’t negatively impacted by a similar experience.”

This December Mr Tantillo surveyed the student population about the process and relative ease of receiving extensions, deferrals and alternative assessments from their schools.

On the results of the survey, Mr Tantillo said: “The data showed mixed reviews. It showed us that some students have very pleasant experiences with their schools, and some students have terrible ones and do not get the help that they need.”

Mr Tantillo told The Saint that the issue of non-uniformity amongst academic schools has been brought to both the Proctor and the Dean alongside the results of the survey.

He continued to say that his “end goal” is to change the process through which disabilities are disclosed to academic schools.

“We need uniformity across all the schools, especially for something like this,” he said. “Quite often the schools are resistant to uniform change, but for something like this it needs to be done.”

Mr Tantillo is unsure how much progress he will make during his remaining time in office. He remarked, “I’d like to finish it during my time as DoRep, but it may just have to be something the next DoRep will have to pick up on.”

Ultimately Mr Teo believes that there is much that can be done to improve how mental health issues are handled at the University. He said, “I think that people should not be afraid to talk about [mental health]. We should treat it like any other illness.

“People [with mental illnesses] should not ask themselves if the [problem] is there or not. Most people are not hypochondriacs.

“I think most people, if they feel hurt or if they feel ill, are not lying about it.”

He continued, “Mental illness is difficult to combat because it hides behind laziness, apathy, cynicism and even stupidity.

“The struggle that comes with it does not go away. It is something that is with you everyday. “

University policy does not allow it to discuss individual cases publicly or for staff members themselves to comment on these issues.

30 COMMENTS

  1. A few inaccuracies here:
    1- Confidentiality is an INSTITUTIONAL responsibility. This means that the University may not disclose private information to outside bodies without the consent of the person concerned; however, when relevant, information may (and must) be passed on within the university. This is repeatedly mentioned during Tutor training and it is emphasised that information must be passed on to the relevant bodies when necessary. The tutor not only has a right to disclose information to the DoT, but is required to do so. The tutor has a duty of pastoral care, and a responsibility to act when made aware of serious conditions like this one. You suggest that this is a violation of University Policy, when the policy in question is explicitly conditional (so is the policy on Confidentiality)
    2- While the response from the DoT is perhaps cold and poorly written, it is common to suggest a leave of absence in these cases. In fact, the student who is unwilling to see the issue must be made aware of the alternatives. During my career as tutor here at the University, I have seen far too many students claim that they can ‘soldier on’ despite major mental or physical illnesses, only to fail the module, be kicked out of their major, or perform largely sub-standard. While carrying on with the hope that things will get better is a common reflex in these cases (partly, I suspect, due to a lingering stigma surrounding mental health as being “minor” issues, or worse, “excuses”), students fail to realise the major implications of such attitudes on both their health and academic standing. This student wishes to continue studying while being excused from academic expectations, including regular attendance, which is simply not possible; to do so would be to set up the student for failure.
    3- Academic tutors do not deal with academic alerts. Alerts are issued and managed by either the module coordinator or the DoT. A student who is in such a situation must (I stress, MUST) arrange a meeting with either the coordinator or the DoT to discuss their situation. In this case, as the student noted that he would have to exceed the maximum number of absences, an apology is not enough to excuse him from university regulations, and such a meeting should have been arranged by the student.
    4- The student claims to be willing to accept the disciplinary consequences for his absences (although simultaneously claiming that the fact that he should face any disciplinary consequences would not be fair, which is a blatant contradiction). The University does not want to fail students as a result of ongoing medical conditions. In fact, if the DoT had applied the policy strictly and failed this student, would anyone be in a better situation? I could very well see an article written in this newspaper denouncing the University’s lack of compassion for a student suffering from clinical depression…

    In summary, the University has a duty of care towards its students, which is institutional, not personal. It seems that the tutor acted in line with University policy. However, students must recognise the extent of medical/personal issues and their impact on their academic and personal wellbeing and be willing to be helped.

    • I feel it necessary to reply to your points from the perspective of a student:

      1. This is an excellent point, and it is completely agreeable. Information must be passed to the relevant institutional agents. However, I feel like the tutor should warn the student of this, as students themselves are not explicitly informed of the fact that e-mails MUST be passed on to another person. Nonetheless, it’s a great point.

      2. I must contest the notion that the reply of the Director of Teaching had anything to do with a leave of absence. It explicitly states that Mr. Teo should “consider leaving the university” and getting “a job, nearer your friends and London.” This does not in anyway suggest the idea of a leave of absence. This suggests complete withdrawal.

      3. As a sciences student, I can’t comment on whether Mr. Teo was informed of the imperative to make an appointment with the director of teaching. From my perspective, this is a point that is actually not known. In fact, it’s likely that, if I was in the same position, I would have e-mailed my tutor first with an apology and an explanation.

      4. I’m not sure telling a student to “consider leaving the university” is an appropriate punishment. As such, I doubt, when saying he was willing to accept the consequences of his actions, he had such an unusually cruel punishment in mind.

      Thank you for your perspective! It’s greatly appreciated, I’m really sorry if I come across as rude, but I thought it would be appropriate to give a response from the perspective of an average student.

      • 2- I agree that the reply should have been more nuanced.
        3- This is written explicitly in every School handbook and module booklet, normally.
        4- Indeed, but what “disciplinary action” was the student expecting then? The relevant disciplinary sanctions would be failing the module, which the student clearly said he did not think was appropriate. So, what’s left?

    • This tutor proves the point and the problem of this university. Excuses and nothing is their fault. Get over yourself already.

      • Where exactly do I excuse inappropriate behaviour? I have stated that the tutor seemingly acted correctly, that the DoT was in principle correct but that his response was seemingly cold, poorly articulated, and inappropriate, and that students have a responsibility to seek help and understand the guiding principles of the university policies. Among others, these include:
        – The university has legal duties, but also legal restraints on its action.
        – The university cannot breach policy where that would significantly undermine expected quality standards.
        – The university acts as an institution, not as individual staff members. The effectiveness of tutors, School administrators, and student services depend on the collaboration between units and staff members.

        So where exactly do I go wrong? Where do I make excuses? And where and how should policies be improved?

        Once again, I refuse to let an ill student fail without trying to help him/her. However, we cannot act alone and without students taking a certain measure of responsibility.

    • This tutor proves the point and the problem of this university. Excuses, excuses, and nothing is their fault. Get over yourself already.

      • Excuse me, I don’t follow. Do what? As for teaching, you don’t know what I teach, and I am not sure what relevance it has to the matter at hand.

        As for being cold, should we let ill students fail without acting? I do not believe so. This would be unethical, in addition to being a breach of our legal and institutional duty of care. Let me reiterate that, from the facts mentioned, the tutor acted exactly as he should have, as per the policy. This policy exists in conformity with the restrictions and duties prescribed by law.

        As tutors, we have neither the authority, right, information, or training to act alone. The only thing we can do is to act as points of contact, and pass on the relevant information to the relevant staff.

        So, pray, what exactly should the tutor have done? How should the policy be improved?

  2. The Directors of Teaching are fundamentally ignorant of mental health issues, and from my experiences – and those of others – it seems like it is because they have had no training at all. I had a similar meeting with my DoT which was an absolute farce – after seeing my doctor’s note confirming I had (severe) clinical depression, they changed my Academic Alert, told me to “pull my socks up” and sent me on my way. Depression is not laziness. It is not something I can just magic away.
    Throughout my dealings with the University, my experience with those who have been trained in how to deal with mental health issues has been overwhelmingly positive. The problem is that, as it stands, it seems like many Directors of Teaching could not give less of a shit about their students’ wellbeing and it’s something which has left a bitter taste after three and a half wonderful years here.

  3. As a neuroscience student with an avid interest in psychopathology, I am disgusted with the behaviour of not only the director of teaching, but also the English tutor in question. Their actions could have had severe consequences for Mr. Teo’s wellbeing.

    The issue, as I see it, is that these people do not understand the profound effects that psychopathologies, such as depression and anxiety disorders, have on an individual. Perhaps, ironically, it is the teachers who are in desperate need of education.

    Was Mr. Teo their child, I wonder if they would be quite so accepting of such behaviour from what is supposed to be the top university in Scotland.

    Thank you for reporting this, Joseph.

  4. The behaviour here is absolutely disgusting and should not be tolerated. This University does not take care of its students’ mental health issues and this has been made painfully clear. I experienced something similar with the School of IR, and I’m sorry to hear this has also happened within the School of English. Absolutely intolerable, and the University as a whole needs to up their employee training and tactics in regards to mental health, or they will run into serious issues.

  5. The Directors of Teaching are fundamentally ignorant of mental health issues, and from my experiences – and those of others – it seems like it is because they have had no training at all. I had a similar meeting with my DoT which was an absolute farce – after seeing my doctor’s note confirming I had (severe) clinical depression, they changed my Academic Alert, told me to “pull my socks up” and sent me on my way. Depression is not laziness. It is not something I can just magic away.
    Throughout my dealing with the University, my experience with those who have been trained in how to deal with mental health issues has been overwhelmingly positive. The problem is that, as it stands, it seems that many Directors of Teaching quite frankly could not give less of a shit about their students’ wellbeing.

  6. From my experience as school president last year I would say that Directors of Teaching (DoTs) don’t necessarily prioritise teaching, let alone mental health issues. Sometimes this is a matter of them juggling so much work, but in my case I found that the DoT was oblivious to reasonable student requests and didn’t understand our concerns with teaching. I can’t comment on pastoral care though. I believe we should recruit full time DoTs who are able and willing to focus on teaching and pastoral care, rather than research. The University should remember where a large chunk of its funding comes from – students, especially internationals – but I suspect herein lies the problem. If you expect your senior staff to juggle research, teaching, programme coordination as well as manage student pastoral care – it’s no wonder students health concerns are sidelined (and NSS scores drop).

    • I very much agree with you that “Teaching Only” is a severely neglected career at this uni. Almost all staff are employed to do research and teaching, and their main passion is research.

      The student experience would be greatly improved if the uni would recruit more teaching only staff who would have the capacity and passion to improve the student experience as they wouldn’t be pulled in so many directions by their research and grant finding obligations.

      Sadly the university currently stigmatises teaching only staff, and they’re looked down upon as lesser staff.

  7. Unfortunately, the university has a terrible track record with handling mental illness across the board, so while this situation is horrible, it isn’t really news. I’ve known at least 5 students who have left St Andrews because of inadequate support, not just from tutors and academics but from Student Services and wardens in residences. It’s really sad.

  8. Depression is fast becoming the national obsession and an excuse for all sorts of behaviour, often resulting in a prolonged absence from work (or studies). Getting a hard time from your boss for being incompetent? 6 months off with ‘stress and depression’. It’s becoming a standing joke and genuine people who really do have an illness are suffering.

    The sooner we have a proper diagnosis for depression, that can be proven in the laboratory, the better we will all be, and the depression bandwagon will grind to a halt. I don’t know if this student is genuine or not, and therein lies the problem. We are forced to assume every case is genuine, even when those who have to work with the individual day in and day out often have a clearer perspective, and see the behavioural hints that they may just be a lazy, selfish and or attention seeking individual.

    Is depression really the hidden disaster of the 21st century as it seems to be, or are we as a nation just becoming ever more spineless? Who knows. But surely those who lived through the last two world wars, scraped together an existence, worked without all the health and safety laws and lived from hand to mouth would have more of an excuse to be ‘depressed’ than the modern teenager who has everything at their disposal. or perhaps that’s the problem? Do people born in the 70s-00s have so little stress in their lives that it makes them depressed?

    Discuss!

  9. To defend the university a little, in my experience of both depression and studying in St Mary’s, I only ever experienced complete support. I would suggest these things for students though:
    – Know the signs that you need help and let everyone know early. One of the best things I did was approach my tutor BEFORE I’d missed much at all to explain I was struggling and the reason why. He wonderfully laid out my options, helped me prioritise, explained he would take it into account in tutorials (for example, not asking me indepth questions on the spot), and assured me that the main priority was my health not my grades. However, the option of deferring IF it came to that was also made available.
    – Go to Student Support. I found their help invaluable and I understand that there are other experiences, but they have checked up on me continuously just to make sure. If they know they can try.
    – Know your limits. A good friend of mine did take a year off during her degree and it allowed her to get the grades she deserved rather than scrapping the barrel. If you miss tutorials/lectures it’s not going to be any easier to get the grades you want, so if you need a break it’s best to take one. Consider your options.

    • Indeed. I have seen far too many times students approach me towards the end of term, when they are facing an Academic alert 10, a non-submission of an essay, or a failure to pass the course, at which point they disclose long-standing medical/personal issues which have impacted their studies. At this point, it is too late to act.

      It is crucial that the students seek help or talk to their tutors before they face irreparable consequences. We, as tutors (and other staff), can only do so much to reach out.

    • I think it depends on your tutor. In the History department, I had a tutor go into my academic record without asking, and then pull me aside after class and bluntly ask me what my mental health condition was. Needless to say, I didn’t feel especially endeared to him. It’s a two-way street; there needs to be a level of trust between academic staff and students which doesn’t exist right off the bat for several reasons on both sides. Staff can assume that students are lying or exaggerating, and students — quite rightly– don’t think that staff can be trusted to be discreet about their illnesses.

  10. One final thing:

    As for staff, as I said in my experience they were great (at least Divinity were + a little English for awhile). However, they are also human, sometimes tactless, sometimes overworked, but on the whole I believe they do their best.

    That being said I agree with the calls for mental health to be talked about more. I saw this develop bit by bit but there are still many who feel alone and that’s not good enough. The more we talk the more people we can help, which has got to be the aim.

  11. I can’t imagine what Mr. Teo must have gone through and the struggles he faces with depression. I completely agree that it is something that needs to be given more attention; not only in St Andrews but in general. Having said that, I don’t think you can fault that school for the response. Although I do agree that it could have been worded differently, academic requirements are put in place for the benefit of the students as well as as the school – the email sent to Mr. Teo was merely explaining the school’s stance. Its not as if they pressured him to leave university; they encouraged him to think about other options. Once again, I agree that it was badly put.

    More importantly, I can’t believe that The Saint published Mr. Teo’s name. I presume that they had his consent, but publishing his name could lead to the same evils that the article claims would lead from the disclosure of Mr. Teo’s illness to other members of staff. Publishing his name, even with consent, is, in my opinion, could pose a grave threat to someone in Mr. Teo’s position; as much or more than the email sent. Furthermore, I was hoping whether someone at The Saint could clarify whether the bracketed parts of the text of the email [specifically the bracketed parts in the following: ““If you miss a fifth class (lecture or tutorial), for whatever reason (including physical or mental illness), we will remove your module credits] were added on by the editors. In my opinion, it changes the tone of the email considerably. I hope that someone looks into this blatant attempt at manipulating the reader’s sentiments – this form of journalism is best left caged in the coverage of the Presidential elections in the United States, and it would be sad to see it creep in unchecked into student journalism in St Andrews.

    • The bracketed sections that you mention were in the original email sent to Mr Teo. We have not added to or altered any quotations used in this article. Thank you for your question.

  12. As someone who transferred out (for different reasons) I did see this as an issue on campus and glad that someone took the initiative to look deeper and write about it. Great work, thank you for sharing!

  13. I took a leave of absence last November with psychotic depression. I’ve had a psychiatric condition, and attendant note on my record, since I matriculated in 2011. My DoT suggested that I accept failing marks, and the University initially tried to deny me a leave of absence, despite emergency admission to Stratheden hospital in Kirkcaldy; I was forced to appeal up the chain to the Pro-Dean of Arts and, as I was already suicidal, became convinced that my life was worthless because I was going to be thrown off of my degree. The university’s bureaucracy very nearly killed me.

    When I am not depressed, I am a bright, outgoing, and all-round ‘normal’ person. I was on a First in my degree and am more than capable of advocating for myself in any circumstance.
    When I am depressed, I can’t move, eat, or do anything except hide in my bed.

    Depression is a real disease that really kills people. It exists on a spectrum, though; there are people like me, for whom it is chronic and debilitating when it strikes, and then recedes completely. And there are people who become situationally depressed, or become depressed once, or are simply struggling to cope. Regardless of the situation, not one of those students should have to try to explain what is going on with them, medically, to an English professor who has no way of telling the difference between someone who is a bit down — which is completely valid, but requires a different course of action– and someone on the edge of suicide. It’s complete lunacy, pun very much intended.

  14. As a student with mental health issues, and as the daughter of two Directors of Teaching at this university, I have seen both sides of the issue first hand. DoTs are not, as a rule, cold and unfeeling, and genuinely want to help students, and are pained by the struggles of their students. However, they receive no significant training in how to deal with mental health issues raised by students. My mother told me that after learning about my struggles with panic attacks, it made her understand much better what struggles her students had when they emailed her with issues about mental health, and informed a more compassionate response. Many DoTs, however, may not have such a firsthand experience with mental health in the 21st century, which is very different than the mental health discourse that most of them grew up with. The diversity in the structure of the DoT role between departments; the fact that, to be frank, this position is often foisted on the newest members of a department who are inexperienced with the university’s bureaucracy; and the lack of uniform training are the main issues here. The recently elected DoRep has made extenuating circumstances policy and training for relevant staff a priority of his campaign, so I am hopeful that this issue will be addressed soon.

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