7 Mar 2022

Student claims hall removed them due to mental health problem

10:22 am on 7 March 2022

Warning: This story discusses suicide and mental health

A Victoria University of Wellington student says their mental health worsened after being temporarily kicked out of their residential hall because they were feeling suicidal.

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Photo: 123rf

Alex*, who uses they/them pronouns, had been going through a particularly stressful period and was feeling low, and at times suicidal, in September.

They were living in Te Puni Village, which up until this year was owned by Victoria University and operated by Campus Living Village - the same outfit operating the University of Canterbury hall where student Mason Pendrous died in 2019.

One of Alex's friends had been concerned, and told a staff member about how Alex had been feeling.

Alex said one evening they had been pressured by staff members to go to stay with their emergency contact, a cousin in Wellington, right away.

Alex left the hall that evening, not knowing they wouldn't be allowed back for two weeks. And it wasn't until the next morning that Alex and their cousin were informed.

"They told [my cousin] that there had been 'a series of things leading up to this'," Alex said.

Hall staff had been previously aware of Alex's mental health issues, as was their doctor and their counsellor, who had an office on site.

"There had been a few situations where I had reached out to the hall for help, as well as my counsellor. But at no point did I know that getting kicked out was something that was on the table, that it was a thing the hall could do."

But hall management can, contractually, remove a student if they believe they're at risk.

The intent of the policy is to send the student to a place where they may receive more support, like with family.

The same clause says written notice will be given to the student about the situation, which Alex says didn't happen.

Alex had only packed a change of clothes, so told the hall they would return for more.

Upon arrival, their swipe card had been disconnected. Staff eventually let Alex inside, but were reluctant to let Alex go their room.

"He was like, 'fine, but I'm coming with you' and I thought, absolutely not, that's so uncomfortable. I'm packing clothes and underwear and personal things. I don't really want someone watching me do that."

As a compromise, a female staff member accompanied Alex to their room to pack.

While Alex recovered, someone from hall management contacted Alex's estranged mother, to inform her about what had happened.

Alex had cut contact with their mother earlier in the year, and removed her from their emergency contact, replacing her with Alex's cousin.

Alex said it was a complete breach of privacy.

"I felt betrayed, I had come to this hall to get away from my mum and now they were trying to force me in that direction."

Nine days after their first night away, Alex was cleared by the Capital & Coast DHB Community Mental Health team to go back to their hall.

But management at Te Puni still made Alex wait for the full two weeks.

During that time Alex was not charged for the room fees.

The whole ordeal had a negative impact on Alex's mental health, who said it felt like they were still "walking on egg shells" after returning to Te Puni Village.

Alex's studies were already declining before being removed from the hall, but they said the ordeal made it so much harder to study.

Alex laid a formal complaint to the university.

The university has since processed that, but told RNZ it won't comment publicly.

In a previous statement, before the investigation was completed, the university said that details of Alex's experience were "not consistent" with its processes.

Victoria University director of student and campus living Rainsforth Dix said the university had confidence in its processes, which "prioritise wellbeing, and are guided by health professionals."

Christchurch GP and youth health advocate Dame Sue Bagshaw strongly believes policies to kick students out suddenly should be revoked.

"It feels like: 'If they're going to die, don't let them die in the halls because we'll get the blame. let them die in somebody's lounge'. That's just risk avoidance, that's not risk mitigation."

Dame Bagshaw said one of the most important things students living at halls need is a sense of belonging, and that being removed from the hall would not have helped at all.

"The important duty [residential halls] have is not just to provide a roof over your head, but really it's to provide another home. Because unless you feel safe and secure, you can't really study."

Victoria University's Student Association president Ralph Zambrano said being kicked out contradicts hall values.

"When students are put in a place that they don't feel comfortable, that just completely contradicts this idea that a hall of residence is supposed to be a place they can call home," he said.

Alex's mental health has improved since late last year and they have been out of Wellington working for the summer break.

When asked how it felt to be away from the hall for good, Alex said "it's like I can breathe again".

* Name has been changed.

Where to get help:

Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7) or text 4202

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz

What's Up: online chat (3pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 helpline (12pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-11pm weekends)

Asian Family Services: 0800 862 342 Monday to Friday 9am to 8pm or text 832 Monday to Friday 9am - 5pm. Languages spoken: Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and English.

Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254

Healthline: 0800 611 116

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

OUTLine: 0800 688 5463 (6pm-9pm)

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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