31 Dec 2018

Student regrets telling Victoria University of mental health history

11:25 am on 31 December 2018

Victoria University told a Canadian exchange student it didn't want her to come after she revealed she had a mental illness.

Kristin Legault

Kristin Legault Photo: Supplied

Third year psychology student Kristin Legault was due to arrive in February and study in Wellington for one trimester.

"I was offered a place - an unconditional offer - by Victoria University. I paid for my [halls of] residence, was accepted into the halls of residence but one of the challenges all along was trying to co-ordinate care for when I get there."

Ms Legault has bipolar disorder and anxiety.

After she was accepted she emailed the university asking if they had an on-campus psychiatrist.

"As soon as I told them that I'd likely need a psychiatrist rather than a GP to prescribe my medication, that got their backs up and they immediately requested personal health information."

She said Victoria University did not ask her to disclose any health conditions during the application process but she had disclosed her conditions to the exchange programme organisers and her home university which is the University of Western Ontario.

Ms Legault told Victoria University she felt uncomfortable with the amount of information that had been requested.

She sent them background information, a discharge summary, what supports she thought she would need and a recovery plan of how she would cope with stress.

"I worked with a psychologist to develop a plan... I basically sent my whole medical records."

Ms Legault arranged to meet with a Wellington-based psychologist and a psychiatrist upon her arrival, her medical information had been sent to them and all the costs were covered under her insurance.

"I made contacts and support systems outside of campus, so it doesn't really involve them," she said.

Victoria University

Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

University Provost Professor Wendy Larner disagreed and said the university had a duty of care to its students.

She said it had not revoked her offer of study but had told her home university it could not provide the support she needed and was recommending she did not come.

She said based on the information it had it did not feel it would be able to support her during her stay.

"If we were to have more information and if we could be confident that we could look after her well-being, that that was the right decision for her, the decision was supported by her own medical professionals - yes we would be very happy to reconsider the discussion."

"We have no firm evidence from her medical professionals that they are supportive of her taking up the exchange at this time."

Ms Larner said the decision was made by the university's medical team.

"We trust the advice of our own medical experts who are deeply experienced in this area. What our own medical experts are saying is based on the very limited information we currently have, that now is not the right time for her to do an exchange."

But, she said the final decision would be made by Ms Legault's home university.

"She does need to work with her own university. I do trust my Canadian colleagues that they will make good decisions," Ms Larner said.

That was news to Ms Legault, who said the email she got read explicitly like her offer had been revoked.

"That's not my understanding of the situation at all. [Victoria University] has also told my psychologist via email that they're withdrawing my offer. Also, the international coordinator at Western University said that Vic Uni has the final say and they've made it clear that they don't want me to come."

Ms Legault has since laid a formal complaint with Victoria University over its decision and about the amount of medical information it requested from her.

"I just don't think that this is ok. When a person is in a wheelchair and they're physically disabled universities and other organisations are required to accommodate that person's disability by providing ramps and that's the same thing with [mental health]. I didn't require huge accommodations. I made contact with the service providers myself.

"This has been taken away just because I have a mental illness. It was all because of my health records.

"I really wish I didn't tell them. I wish I could have just arrived on campus and never told them what my diagnosis was."

'Appalled and saddened at the treatment of Kristin'

A counsellor said she is 'appalled and saddened' by the treatment of an international student who was told by Victoria University it didn't want her on campus after she disclosed her mental illness.

Robyn McGill, told Morning Report it's disappointing Ms Legault was treated differently when she told the university about her mental health.

"She was being responsible and careful and knowing how her brain works and wanting to look after that as best as possible. Yet, she is being defined by that by having a brain that operates differently.

"I question the ethics of asking people for additional information and how intrusive it is into people's privacy ... when this student in particular has done everything possible to make sure that her study in New Zealand is going to be successful," Ms McGill said.

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