MSVU student not allowed to tell others he’s suicidal per school’s wellness agreement

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MSVU student not allowed to tell others he’s suicidal per school’s wellness agreement
WATCH ABOVE: A Mount Saint Vincent University student is speaking out about a wellness agreement he signed that forced him to not tell other students living in residence about being suicidal. Global's Steve Silva has this exclusive story – May 16, 2016

A Mount Saint Vincent University student says a confidential wellness agreement forbidding him to tell other students in residence that he was feeling suicidal left him feeling “ashamed and embarrassed,” and he wants the policy changed.

One of the stipulations of the agreement states the student “will not discuss or engage in conversations with residence students regarding personal issues, namely the student’s self-destructive thoughts.”

Other requirements include attending counselling, and keeping the agreement confidential.

Not following those rules would result in his lease being terminated.

Dated Oct. 5, 2015, the agreement was signed by Lynn Cashen Basso, the residence life manager, and student Brody Stuart-Verner.

“I would be sitting around a table with many of my friends and someone would say, ‘Oh, Brody, you look upset. What’s wrong?’ And I would have to shrug my shoulders, roll my eyes, laugh. ‘Nothing, what are you talking about?’ Just quickly deflect it,” said Stuart-Verner, who is going into his third year in the public relations program at the school.

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Originally from Sussex, N.B., he said he was diagnosed with major depression, and he told only two close friends, one of whom lived on campus, about feeling suicidal.

“I’m a very quiet person, typically. I’m not running around telling everybody how I’m feeling. In fact, it’s very hard for me to even do this interview,” said Stuart-Verner on Saturday in Charlottetown, where he’s working during the spring and summer months.

He said he felt suicidal late last September when he was 19. He brought up his concerns with a resident assistant before going to a hospital.

“Emotionally and mentally, I had flatlined,” said Stuart-Verner, who gave Global News permission to publish the agreement.

He was called in to speak with residence administration and sign the agreement about a week later.

“It was either sign it or leave,” said Stuart-Verner. “I was in such a fragile state that I felt like they had my best interests in mind. I felt like I should sign it, go along with it. I didn’t really feel like I had any leeway, I just wanted to get better.”

After rereading and thinking more about it, he said he realized “how absolutely absurd” the agreement was.

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“I think that we could be more explicit in our language about what the intent of the agreement is, and that’s something that we’ve undertaken to do,” Paula Barry Mercer, associate vice-president of student experience at the university, said in Halifax on Monday.

She said that the rule is only implemented in high-risk cases, and that the intent of it is to have people who have those thoughts seek professional help – not friends’ help.

Stuart-Verner said he did get professional help.

“I can assure you that this comes from a place of care. So it’s not that we’re saying to students, ‘Don’t talk to your friends about your feelings.’ It’s more that we want to make sure that, if those feelings are escalating, that you’re talking to the right people,” Barry Mercer said.

In total, there have been six wellness agreements issued in the past three years at MSVU; an estimated three of those contained the same rule, she said.

“Sometimes listening to your friends’ suicidal ideations or thoughts of self-destructive behaviour can take a real emotional toll on students,” Barry Mercer said.

“Suicidal thoughts are not contagious. Depression is not contagious, and so having someone talk about their problems isn’t going to cause other people to experience those problems,” Todd Leader, a psychologist, said in an interview.

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He said it’s important for people to feel free to talk about mental health issues to reduce the associated stigma.

“Anything that we do that stops people from talking [about their mental issues], is potentially harmful to those people,” Leader said.

A Facebook post by MSVU Residence Life links to a YouTube video made by staff encouraging students to erase that aforementioned stigma. The narrator also adds, “The silence stops now.”

The description of the video includes this sentence: “Talk to someone today, your friend, your RA, your mom, your dog or anyone!”

Another post links to a BuzzFeed listicle with mental health tips, including: “Don’t hesitate to approach the range of mental health advisers and counselling services available at your university, as well as talking to other students and friends.”

Stuart-Verner, who lived alone, said he planned to live in residence when school starts again but this experience has changed that.

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“Because of this agreement, I felt ashamed and embarrassed of how I was feeling but, now that I’ve had time to reflect, and I’ve had time to talk to many different people, I feel the only one in this case who should feel ashamed and embarrassed is Mount Saint Vincent University for perpetuating the stigma,” he said.

While his mental health is still a struggle, he’s feeling better overall and no longer feeling suicidal, Stuart-Verner added.

He is also seeking an apology from the university.

Barry Mercer said she told him: “I apologize for the misinterpretation, and that we would change the language.”

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