02/07/2015 10:36 EST | Updated 04/09/2015 05:59 EDT

Acadia University student removed from dorm after expressing suicidal thoughts

An Acadia University student says he was removed from his dorm after expressing suicidal thoughts, but the Nova Scotia university says it would never make such a decision without the student's health in mind.

Blake Robert, 20, published his account in the student newspaper The Athenaeum on Thursday. He said he began to feel depressed in the final semester last school year, and it got worse when he returned in the fall.

Robert turned to the don of his residence, who was "very supportive" and got him an appointment with Acadia University's counselling services, he said. However, he said he never got the chance to go — he was told to pack his bags the day before the appointment on Dec. 10.

Robert is a second-year psychology student from Kingston, not far from Acadia's Wolfville campus.

His don had told her boss about Robert's condition — something he believes she was obligated to do, seeing a risk to his safety — and Robert's mother was asked to come pick him up. He said he was told he was "a threat" to other students.

"If I died, that would have a negative impact on the psychological well-being of other students in residence," Robert said.

Scott Roberts, a spokesman for Acadia University, disputed that account in an open letter to the student paper. He shared a copy with CBC News.

"There has never been a case at Acadia where a student has been removed from residence for the sole reason that they have threatened self-harm. We simply would not do that," he said.

"There have been times, though, where the special needs of an individual have exceeded the university's capacity to provide the adequate and necessary support for their own safety and well-being, as well as supporting and protecting others who are in close proximity or have direct contact with the individual."

'We care deeply about our students'

He said the student resource centre offers a range of mental health supports.

"We care deeply about our students; it is a hallmark of who we are at Acadia. We are saddened that any individual feels that their needs have not been met, but we remain committed to working with students to maintain a healthy, respectful and supportive environment," Roberts said.

Adele Robert, Blake's mother, said the call to pick him up came as a shock. Her son had not been evaluated by any Acadia mental health professional, she said.

"When I picked him up, I was taking him home with the idea that we would seek counselling, and they gave me no help with where I was going to do that," she said.

Her son, who had exams left to write, could finish them and return to class. But he wasn't welcome back to residence, they told her.

"I got a call the next day [saying] that he couldn't come back until at least September and honestly, maybe not even then," she said.

She says administrators told her there was no official policy, but her son was a danger to himself and the staff and the other students. Later, in writing, she says they said they sent him away because they couldn't guarantee his safety.

'A little outrageous'

Blake Robert said his removal from residence showed no concern for his health.

"I didn't want to be ostracized like that," he said. "They could, instead of sending me home, have sent me to the hospital, but they didn't.

"To be honest, before they evicted me, I felt like I was improving. I felt like the counselling would have been enough. But when they evicted me I went back to the place where I felt, essentially, worthless."

Robert ended up in hospital the next day and began seeing a psychiatrist, who decided before long that the student didn't need to be hospitalized.

Adele Robert and her son say the university asked the family to sign papers allowing them to see his medical records in order for them to assess whether to permit him to live on campus again.

"To prove your mental health to live in residence is a little outrageous to me," said Adele Robert.

Robert finished his exams and moved in with roommates for the second semester. It has been harder to see his close friends at Acadia, he said.

He wrote in the Athenaeum that the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission advised him he had grounds to get back on campus.

'It's not uncommon'

Mental disability is a "protected characteristic" under the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act, said commission spokesman Jeff Overmars, though the commission can't confirm whether it has advised in any particular case.

Jennifer Nowoselski, a Dalhousie Student Union vice-president, said Robert's story reminded her of anecdotes from Dalhousie, where students often hear that mental health services are underfunded and overwhelmed.

"It's not uncommon on any university campus for people to have suicidal [ideas] and to not be receiving the proper help for it," said Nowoselski.

"I think that there's also a really big stigma around mental illness on campus," she said. "What we need to do is make sure we're not erasing people's struggles but recognizing that everyone is struggling."