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.