I woke up to a knock at my door. Puzzled and dazed, after completing my first exam of the semester, I threw myself out of bed to answer the visitors. Far from a stressed out friend or friendly Residence Assistant, I was greeted by the manager of Residence Life and the director of the Student Resource Centre. I was being evicted without notice. Their phrasing, that I was “being asked to leave,” hardly comforted me.
I had been suffering through a severe bout of anxiety and depression, unfortunately all too common among university students. At Acadia we are no different. Most of us are touched by mental illness in some way; even those of us free of it often witness the struggle of friends and loved ones. Tragically, sometimes an illness becomes horribly dangerous, resulting in the serious harm or even death of someone we hold dear. Suicide is not an issue Acadia is unfamiliar with, but it remains difficult to understand.
Why would someone choose to end her life? In my case, I felt worthless. Sometimes I even felt as if life were no longer real. I was lonely and isolated even in the midst of friends, lacking the energy, motivation, and appetite to enjoy the things I once did. My classes gave me purpose and something to keep my mind occupied, but I felt hopelessly cloaked in darkness and I lacked the means to lift the veil. Depression insidiously warped my very identity and view of the world. There was only so much I could do myself: I reached out for help.
At first I spoke only to peers, but when I realized the severity of the situation, I decided to contact a Residence Life don to be directed to mental health resources. After some email correspondence, I met with the don in person, and we ended up discussing my serious thoughts and intentions of suicide. The don made me feel as safe as possible given the situation, and got me an appointment with a counsellor at the Student Resource Centre.
I felt supported. I felt hopeful. I felt like I could get through this and focus on recovery after exams. I was reminded that I have a life ahead of me, that it didn’t have to all end here. Two days later, I heard the knock. My visitors had just come back from a safety and security meeting where my situation was discussed. I was told I wasn’t safe and was being “asked to leave”. They assured me I would still be given the opportunity to complete my exams. My home was less than an hour away, so my mother was contacted at work to retrieve me. On her way to Dennis, I was given time to pack my bags and talk to the director of the Student Resource Centre, who is a counsellor.
We discussed her theoretical background. I was told I was essentially experiencing a fight-or-flight response and thus my thoughts were not important. I needed to evaluate my emotions, but I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t know what to feel at the time. My thoughts ran in loops. I felt helpless and hopeless. I thought I would receive help, but instead lost my privilege to even live at Acadia. I was expelled from the residence community. I lost the social support of my friends. I no longer had the opportunity to go to the counselling appointment I had the next day.
It was profoundly painful. They would allow me to die, as long as it was off-campus. There was no warning and no opportunity to advocate for myself: I was disappeared from residence. The following day, I went to the hospital. I spoke to a psychiatrist who I still see now. On our second meeting, he qualified Residence Life’s actions as the worst case of discrimination he has ever seen. My case is not unique. Though he would not provide a number, the manager admitted that on a case-by-case basis, suicidal students are evicted from residence just as I was. My parents and I succeeded in organizing a talk with the manager of Residence Life, director of the Student Resource Centre, and executive director of Student Resources for discussion and clarification.
At this appointment, I was expecting to be informed of the reasoning behind my eviction and to be somewhat appeased, but it turned out to be a disciplinary meeting.
I was suspended from residence until September or until such time that I could prove I was mentally well enough to return. There was no opportunity for appeal; the Residence Life manager’s decision was final. I would have to sign a release to have my private medical information shared with the Student Resource Centre director. The Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission informed us that only a letter from my psychiatrist would’ve been enough to see my return, but Residence Life is not too familiar with human rights, as you will see.
Like an informal criminal proceeding, Residence Life’s manager quoted passages from my emails with the don as evidence against me, evidence that I was an unacceptable threat to the safety of other students and to myself. With life-threatening physical illnesses, you receive support, are sent to the hospital, and then reintegrated into school life if possible, if you wish to return. With life-threatening mental illnesses, Residence Life’s management labels you a threat and ejects you, separates you from the population of students under their care so you can’t harm them by harming yourself. You have to prove you are no longer a “threat” to get back in. If this seems like a double standard, that’s because it is – a common sign of mental health stigma and prejudice.
The specious reasoning behind maintaining this double standard is to minimize the psychological effect of a student’s suicide, something profoundly distressing, more so than the death of a student by, say, cancer (though try telling that to the people that have lost a loved one to that horrible affliction). Residence Life’s strategy is hopelessly ineffectual. If someone you knew committed suicide, would you be comforted by the fact that it didn’t happen on campus and instead she was sent off in time to die somewhere else? Suspending students for being at risk of suicide does not protect others from the effect a possible suicide would have, it only protects suicidal students from a supportive community.
The manager, with a two-day suicide detection course under his belt, saw my overt suicidal ideation and acted quickly to surgically remove the cancer to the student community before I could metastasize. I was not, and will likely not be, the only tumour removed. This manager, on a case-by-case basis, makes decisions with his colleagues to suspend students from residence who are at an arbitrarily high risk of suicide, instead of doing what they can to help them. They have not told students this because we may be anxious to seek help. We should be anxious to seek help through them. Mental illness stigma has very clearly influenced Residence Life’s management. So many resources have been dedicated to fighting the stigma, but we still have a long way to go. There is still prejudice against those of us with mental illness.
During our meeting, the manager brought up the notion that Residence Life’s staff is essentially composed of landlords and thus ought not be expected to care for students with mental illnesses like mine. I’m currently living in a house off-campus to continue my studies. My landlady cannot legally evict me without notice and certainly not for the reasons Residence Life did. They are not landlords; they are caretakers of a community. One could easily argue that there should be a limit to what kind of burden should be imposed on them by students, but a discussion about this should be public, involving students, not between a few people in the upper echelons of Students Services’ management, and the burden certainly does not justify treating people such as myself like second-class citizens.
Had I committed a crime even as abhorrent as rape, 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.
My parents and I asked that the manager of Residence Life give us his decision and the reasoning behind it in writing. The letter I received had a completely shifted narrative from that of the meeting. I was not evicted because I was a threat to other students or because they shouldn’t have to deal with me, I was evicted because Residence Life required time to evaluate its ability “… to provide a safe and supportive housing option for [me].”
“We are all pleased that you have been able to access positive support this past week and hear that you have a plan to move forward. Acadia University is committed to student success for all students living on and off-campus and provides access to resources and staff supports on an ongoing basis.”
I tried to access these resources and instead encountered an institution seemingly far more concerned with its own protection than that of my life. The absurdly transparent bureaucratic rhetoric in the letter did little to alleviate my concerns. It did include an offer to answer my questions and provide clarification, but I had completely lost faith in Residence Life as a supportive institution, at least with regard to mental health.
Following an alcohol-related death on campus in 2011, Acadia launched a comprehensive reform of its alcohol management policy in order to help ensure safe drinking habits. “A number of dedicated and committed people from students, faculty and staff, to parents and community leaders, to health care professionals and policy makers helped Acadia develop this comprehensive strategy and I am grateful for their important contribution,” proclaimed Ray Ivany, President of Acadia University. A report by Dr. Robert Strong, our province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, included many references to mental health as a major concern in developing a policy, likely because substance abuse is a key contributing factor to mental illness and significantly increases the risk of suicide. Residence Life was involved in Acadia’s updated strategy and its policy can be found in the Residence Life Handbook. Unfortunately, it includes no reference to mental health.
Does Residence Life believe it’s not important enough to discuss? Why is it that they are so open about alcohol policies but not mental health policies? I and likely all the other suicidal students suspended from residence had no idea this could happen to us. Why the timidity in discussing such an important issue and making sure that the most vulnerable students are properly informed? Why not inform the general population of students and parents how they deal with us “threats”? Why the opacity with this issue but not dangerous alcohol use? If Student Services’ management is confident this is the best posture they can adopt, why is it not public when this posture could greatly impact the choice of students to live in residence? It may be because it’s a disgraceful posture to adopt.
In the far more litigious nation of the United States, some students evicted for attempting suicide as early as 2004 have successfully sued their schools for human rights violation, specifically discrimination on the basis of mental disability. This, along with some court rulings and bad national press, led many American universities to seek better means of caring for students in danger of harming themselves. It seems most universities in Canada have not adopted that regressive and aggressive posture of evicting suicidal students. Though, apparently some have.
In a recent investigative report by CTV’s W5, it’s revealed that the mental health activist Erin Hodgson of jack.org who graduated from the University of Toronto was evicted by a vote of her peers several years ago after attempting to end her life. It was an experience likely far more traumatic than mine, but the same would have happened to her had she gone to Acadia, by the decision of the Residence Life manager instead of her peers.
There are universities that have treated life-threatening mental illness in outrageously callous ways, and one would hope at least most of them have changed. Why is Residence Life so far behind with mental health, yet so up-to-date with alcohol safety? As an institution, it is a crucial part of the mental health support puzzle, while every other relevant institution at Acadia seems to play its role better. The Counselling Centre is fantastic, in my experience, and the Mental Health Society has made significant contributions to the mental well-being of the student body. For instance, they organize things like Mental Health Week, they provide a personal support line, they have a safe space in the Student Union Building that anyone can visit, and they’re providing mental health training to many students that will surely save lives.
How could Residence Life possibly save the lives of those that went through what I did? If anything, they significantly increased my risk of suicide. This has happened to other students, and it will continue happening until someone dies after being evicted or until Residence Life is forced to change. I for one would prefer the latter. I have depressed friends that are now seriously concerned about their ability to stay in residence. In writing this, I’m afraid of instilling this anxiety in other students living on campus, which is why included in this issue of the Athenaeum is a list of mental health resources you can access confidentially.
I cannot stand for Residence Life’s odious actions behind closed doors and do not believe opacity does anything to help students: it serves only to protect public image. As of January 6, the Equity Officer has been conducting an investigation into Residence Life, but she agreed with their unofficial policy of simply barring students like me from living on campus. A Canadian Mental Health Association representative I spoke to found Residence Life’s actions appalling and a clear case of discrimination; I was given valuable advice on how to handle the situation. But why should severely depressed students need to go to outside institutions to get any kind of effectual advocacy? Why should they ever feel the need for advocacy? I’m grateful that I’ve been able to receive counselling this term through the Student Resource Centre, but I can safely say Residence Life has been the greatest threat to my mental health. It should not have been that way and should not be that way for other students that ever find themselves in a similar situation. The go-die-somewhere-else attitude of Residence Life’s management is absolutely reprehensible and has to change.
If you would like to speak to a professional counsellor, please email [email protected] to book an appointment. For a mental health emergency, please call the NS mental health crisis line at 902-429-8167 or 1-888-429-8167 (toll free).