THE ORMOND COLLEGE AFFAIR BECAME FAMOUS FOR IGNITING A FEMINIST DEBATE (OR SHOULD I SAY SLANGING MATCH) YET THE ISSUE OF THE UNIVERSITY’S MISUSE OF INSTITUTIONAL POWER AND LACK OF PROPER PROCESS SEEMS TO HAVE GOTTEN LOST IN THE BOXING MATCH SET UP BETWEEN OLD SCHOOL FEMINISTS IN THE RED CORNER AND THE NEW DIY RIOT GIRLS IN THE BLUE. WHILST THE CHICKS WERE KNOCKING EACH OTHER OUT, PATRIARCHY MADE AN UNHINDERED RUN THROUGH THE GOALPOSTS.
IN SARAH RUSSELL‘S EXPERIENCE MELBOURNE UNI HAS ONCE AGAIN NEGLECTED THEIR DUTY OF CARE AND ACTED IRRESPONSIBLY AND IN A DISCRIMINATORY MANNER THIS TIME IN A CONTEXT OF MENTAL ILLNESS. FOR AN INSTITUTION THAT CLAIMS TO BE ENLIGHTENED AND EDUCATIONAL, THE WARNINGS AGAINST POWER STRUCTURES INHERENT IN EVERY FIRST YEAR ARTS COURSE DON’T SEEM TO HAVE REACHED VERY FAR: SO MUCH DERRIDA AND STILL WE HAVE DERR-BRAINS. MAYBE IT’S TIME TO GIVE THOSE OUT OF WORKOUT STUDENTS A JOB AND ENROL UNIVERSITY MANAGEMENT INTO SOCIOLOGY 101.
SARAH RUSSELL APPROACHED US WITH A DESIRE TO SET THE STORY STRAIGHT AND PREVENT THE SAME MISFORTUNE HAPPENING TO ANOTHER. BRAVEHEART AIN’T NOTHING COMPARE TO HER: NO ONLY DID SHE HAVE THE COURAGE TO CONFRONT HER PEERS, AN ADVERSARIAL LEGAL SYSTEM AND UNIVERSITY, SHE HAS TOLD HER STORY TO THE MEDIA (ARTICLES APPEAR IN THE AUSTRALIAN, ARENA AND FERRAGO). SHE AIMS TO MAKE SURE THAT EFFORTS ARE MADE TO EDUCATE PEOPLE ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES AND THAT THE UNIVERSITY PROVIDES A CREDIBLE STRUCTURE INCLUDING THE SANCTION OF A LEGAL AUTHORITY SO THAT FUTURE VICTIMS OF DISCRIMINATION HAVE A SPEEDY AND JUST PROCESS. AS A RESULT OF HER EXPERIENCES, THE UNIVERSITY IS CURRENTLY DRAFTING PROCEDURES SO THAT THE RIGHTS OF STUDENTS AND STAFF WITH MENTAL ILLNESSES ARE NOT DISMISSED
An 18 month ordeal ended on 16 January 1997 when the University of Melbourne gave a written apology in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. My complaint of unlawful discrimination was resolved when it was finally acknowledged that some officers of the University had responded inappropriately to my episode of mental illness. This acknowledgment meant more to me than any financial compensation.
The saga began in May 1995 when a new PhD student in my department confided that she had tried to kill herself and that she frequently thinks about suicide. I found this disclosure very traumatic as my best friend had recently committed suicide. After receiving a long letter from this woman in which she described only a “glimmer of hope”, I began having this recurring nightmare, waking up terrified in the middle of the night.
Even though it had been 14 years since I had experienced an episode of mental illness, I heard the mania warning bells and I sought advice. Stupidly, I chose to go to a counsellor and a naturopath for help. The counsellor recommended a holiday and suggested I stayed away from my colleague; the naturopath recommended celery juice and sardines when, in fact, I really needed lithium and sleep.
Several weeks later, after I returned from Byron Bay, my colleague became depressed. I started to worry that she may be contemplating another suicide attempt and I felt that I could not let it happen again. I tried to talk to her about my fears but she had other things on her mind. Eventually, I wrote her a note which she resented. She told me that I was not her “fucking mother”.
I became too upset and angry to sleep. Instead, I stayed up all night writing her a ten page, honest letter. Classic manic behaviour. I asked for a response. When I received none, I left messages on her answering machine. The next day, my fears for her safety returned and the quantity of the answering machine messages increased. There was no malice in these messages; there was simply a lot of them. I was as high as a kite!
After three nights of not sleeping, I recognised that I was unwell. I went to a 24 hour clinic and requested some sleeping tablets. I came home to find the Crisis Assessment and Treatment (CAT) team, courtesy of my brother, on my doorstep. Terrified, I telephoned a postgraduate friend to ask for her help. She and her girlfriend came to my home where they witnessed behaviour that was symptomatic of the acute phase of my mental illness. My behaviour probably resembled someone on a bad acid trip; I was completely out of control. I could neither sit still nor shut up. I knew exactly what I was doing, but nobody else did.
I doubt my friends had ever witnessed psychotic behaviour before and I am sure that they found the whole experience very distressing. Let’s face it: witnessing acute illnesses can be very upsetting. Severe asthmatic attacks or epileptic convulsions, for example, can be quite devastating to observe. Yet, it is common to feel compassion for the sufferers of physical illnesses. In my case, however, my friends felt only anger.
Later, when I returned to earth, I desperately needed to apologise to those people who had been affected by my mental illness. This apology was a very important part in my recovery process. I telephoned my friend but, upon hearing my voice, she immediately hung up her phone. I was devastated. Several weeks later, I mailed her a letter, but it was returned to me. At a time when I desperately needed compassion, I found hostility.
There is nothing like a bout of mental illness to show you who your real friends are! It’s a great opportunity to have a pruning session to clear out all the dead wood. Fortunately, most of my friends have stood firmly beside me. It was only at university, in this place of “enlightenment”, that I was rejected and “othered”.
I was astonished to learn that my friend had spoken about my “Psychotic Sunday Behaviour” to my academic supervisor. It had occurred in my own home and had nothing to do with the university. The boundary between personal and professional became further blurred when my colleague complained of “harassment”. Couldn’t she have just picked up her phone and told me to bugger off? Then, at least I would have known that she was not lying in a gutter somewhere full of valium and panadol.
The “harassment” complaint transformed my private illness into a major departmental issue. As a consequence, my privacy and confidentiality were completely violated. My supervisor not only announced my mental illness in a departmental staff meeting but also repeated the unsubstantiated allegation of harassment before she had heard my side of the story. She even discussed my illness with other postgraduate students to find out whether my behaviour had upset them in any way. During this witch hunt, some postgraduate students complained that I was “direct, honest, articulate and outspoken”. Later, I explained that this was not the behaviour of a “manic-depressant”; this was me.
I was sick for two days, not two years. Nevertheless, a group of postgraduate women who had all been guests in my home, formed a delegation to complain to my supervisor that they had been profoundly effected by my behaviour for the past two years! These women used the lens of a mental illness to re-interpret my behaviour and their relationship with me. They complained that I was the “self appointed organiser of social activities and reading groups”. One of my best friends in the department complained that I had “hindered her professional development”. It was even suggested that I had power over these women, apparently because I am older than them, went to a private school, and owned a house!
In response to the growing hysteria, the student counselling service was contacted. Yet, rather than educate the women about mental illness, the “confidential” process was used to generate further grievances which were later disclosed to me. I was told that the group counselling sessions began with the question: “how has Sarah’s behaviour upset you?”! Information gathered from this trial by gossip was reported to a Dean and documented on my academic file.
When the Dean heard from my supervisor that I had a mental illness and that I had “harassed and bullied” students, he simply assumed that the allegations were true. By not investigating the grievances through any formal process or even just waiting to hear my side of the story, the Dean denied me access to natural justice. He advised my supervisor to have all the staff keep a watchful eye out for any such future behaviour! It was even documented on my academic file that, if “the behaviour” continued, my candidacy may need to be reconsidered.
So much for mental illness being treated just like a physical illness! If I had HIV, for example, would my supervisor have announced my illness without my permission at the staff meeting? If I had broken my leg, would my supervisor have jumped to the same conclusions and placed a file-note on my academic file? If I had experienced an episode of asthma, would punitive action regarding my candidature be considered?
During my few days back at university it became clear that my colleague’s interpretation of my manic behaviour as a form of “harassment” had done irreparable damage to me. Staff took liberties to ask me intrusive questions that demonstrated misunderstandings and distortions. On one occasion a woman from another department approached me with disbelief because she had heard on the university grapevine that I had “sexually assaulted” seven women! This was just what I did not need, trying to recover from a mental illness!
Amongst academics, it seems nothing is sacred. News of my illness spread to my other workplace where it was widely circulated by the receptionist. Here, however, the people are more educated and the response to my illness has been compassionate, not cruel. Here, people have even helped me to find some humour in this most extraordinary saga. Colleagues have left numerous messages on my answering machine, hoping I will not lodge an harassment complaint. They even threaten to lock me in the car when I’m too outspoken!
The most tragic part of this saga is that the person I wanted most to apologise for all the unnecessary damage that was done to my life did nothing to redress the injustice. Finally, after informal meetings with the Head of the Department and my supervisor were unable to resolve the matter, I sought legal assistance. The Dean responded with the University’s big guns; legal letters from Arthur Robinson and Hedderwicks denied any liability.
To obtain a simple apology, I was left with no choice but to make a formal complaint of unlawful discrimination to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission! My complaint was immediately expedited by the Commission, reflecting its serious nature.
Perhaps my efforts to redress the injustice that was done to me will prevent such discrimination recurring at Melbourne University or, indeed, elsewhere. For some, however, it is too late. A young man, whose candidature in sixth year medicine was discontinued years ago following an episode of mental illness, committed suicide. His mother, a total stranger to me, cried when she heard news of my victory. Finally, through the policies, procedures and education that will now be implemented at Melbourne University, his mother felt she had received her redress. As for the young woman who telephoned me recently, she is very much alive and seeking her own redress. It seems the University of Melbourne still has a lot to learn!
First published in Farrago in 1997