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'No one to turn to' - Former student who lived at university hall in Wellington describes lack of mental health support

A former student who says he was “left with no one to turn to” during a mental health crisis at his university hall wants to see privatized student accommodation scrapped.

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Tom Kelly spoke at a Government inquiry about how he was told he’d have to leave the hall if his mental health deteriorated. Source: 1 NEWS

Tom Kelly says he was a resident of a hall run by Australia-based company Campus Living Villages while studying at Victoria University in Wellington in 2014. He shared his experience at the Government inquiry into student accommodation, sparked by the issue of university halls charging students for empty rooms during lockdown last year.

Kelly told the inquiry he became suicidal during his time at the hall, but while his RA handled his situation well, he says he was told he’d have to leave if his mental health deteriorated.

“When RAs learned that I was at risk they took me aside made sure I wasn’t in any immediate danger and that process was fine. But then they alerted the head of the hall who told me pretty promptly that if this happened again and if they were concerned again that I’d be asked to leave the hall.”

He says that level of care wasn’t what he was expecting at a hall of residence, and he was told not to talk to his friends about his mental health issues.

“At that time I needed to be told that my life was not falling apart, that I was supported and importantly that I wasn’t a burden on those around me.

“I was also encouraged not to tell my friends about the things I was going through, not to worry them, to come to the hall but as I thought I’d be kicked out if I got into trouble again and needed assistance I was unwilling to open up to hall staff about issues I was having.”

He says the death of a student in the same hall a few weeks later exacerbated the situation.

“I think there was one group counselling session for the student’s floor and the main thrust of the response from the university was to bring in a student liaison to check up on students but given they weren’t a therapist or a counsellor, this wasn’t especially helpful.”

Campus Living Villages says it “works closely” with Victoria University of Wellington including Student Health and Counselling services.

“We are always concerned to hear from students who may have had a difficult experience and we welcome feedback so we can work closely with the university to review and continuously improve the student experience.”

Victoria University of Wellington says while it doesn’t comment on individual cases, providing support for students and staff with mental health concerns is a “high priority”.

“Te Herenga Waka has significantly improved its processes for providing support for people with mental health concerns and also provides more robust training for staff, including Residential Advisors, to recognise issues and refer appropriately. We have a team of Student Support Coordinators who are registered health professionals and who provide a confidential service for hall residents experiencing health or wellbeing issues.”

However, it says halls of residence “are not designed or equipped to provide specialist mental health care and are not residential care facilities”.

“Communal living of the kind offered by halls of residence is not always the best option for students in crisis… Students experiencing mental health issues are encouraged to seek support through professional staff and not to involve other residents in their care.”

There are eight universities in New Zealand and dozens of halls of residence. Some of the halls are run by the university itself, some are run by trusts and some by private companies.

The findings of the inquiry will help develop a permanent Pastoral Care Code for student accommodation and clarify the purpose of student accommodation in New Zealand.

Do you have a story about student accommodation? Contact our reporter Kristin Hall on kristin.hall@tvnz.co.nz