Trigger Warning: Mental Illness and Suicide
I don’t want to apportion blame, everyone involved is a victim of the process. But I want people to be aware about how this process works. I’m worried that in offering a first year accommodation guarantee the ANU’s accommodation policy has largely ignored the needs of disabled students at the wayside, in particular, those with invisible illnesses such as mental health issues.
I have always been a worrier. In 2013 I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). My anxiety is like a volume control dial; some days it is at maximum, so loud and disorientating, but then on other days it will be background music, noticeable but not too concerning. The fact of the matter is: it’s always there.
2015 was a tough year for me. In January I did a summer course, not giving myself a break from university; in April my great-aunt – who was like a grandmother to me – passed away before I could say goodbye; in July I had my fourth major cardiac surgery and my mental health was all over the place; and in October I finally received a diagnosis for Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). That being said, the biggest stressor of the year was how I was treated when reapplying to my old college (which did not accept me). I feel that during the entire process I was not treated with respect.
Granted, when I wrote my application I wrote it in a hurry. Though it was due on a Thursday, my anxiety-riddled brain compelled me to submit it a day early – convinced as I was that otherwise the the application would be lost in the ether that is the internet. There was an issue with what I wrote in the medical section of the application. I maintain that any concerns could have been resolved with a simple email or phone call; I could not discuss them in person as I was at my parents’ house in Sydney, still recovering from cardiac surgery. However, this concern, and my ‘apparent suicidal ideation’ were reasons enough for the Head of Hall to submit my application to a ‘Review Panel’. Luckily I was not studying as this email came to students at the end of October. I was not the only student to go through this process, and cannot fathom the stress such a process would put on students sitting their exams. I know many people who dropped out of the re-application process, but I decided to push on.
I tried to send supporting documentation. Unfortunately, I did not think to send the death certificate of my great-aunt or a note from my surgeon (mostly due to his busy work schedule). With the claim of ‘suicidal ideation’ at the forefront of my mind I barely tracked down my psychologist in time, and yet she unintentionally forgot to write that I did not match that criterion, and fixated on explaining my diagnosis, believing this to be enough. I have never been suicidal, and my psychologist of five years will gladly confirm this.
What I found utterly perplexing was according to the college handbook, an extract of which I have attached, ‘suicidal ideation’ should have meant that my parents were contacted, as a medical emergency. Furthermore, it should have resulted in the Canberra Assessment Treatment Team (CATT) being called, just as they were regarding one other student in the college.
What really disappointed me was the secretive nature of this process. I was informed by Student Assistance that minutes were not taken at these panel meetings, that the panel was delayed because the chairperson was ill, and that no appeal process exists. The fact that the Head of Residency is responsible for submitting your application, and yet it is only through the same Head of Residency that you can contact the panel seems to be a conflict of interest, and an investigation into the panel policy needs to be undertaken for improved transparency.
When I finally got my rejection letter I could only conclude that in regards to my wellbeing, the intent and action of the Head of Hall did not appear to match up. My friend remarked when she read the response, that the Head of Hall “didn’t even apologise” for the final result. I found the Head of Hall’s comments about being “deeply concerned for my welfare” disingenuous as I was there for a whole semester and they did not ask to meet me once. The disingenuous nature of the response was further reinforced when the Head of Hall implied I had become a burden to those around me. I am not aware if they understood the impact that this word can have, but it should never be used when referring to those with disabilities. Considering this, I am glad it was the students at this college who really helped me last year. They raised money for mental health charities and we made a genuine commitment to be on the lookout for each other, to talk to each other, and to lift each other up.
I end on a cynical note; the nature of this process will make people with invisible illnesses reluctant to disclose their problems. And that will be a greater shame than what happened to me.