(Photo is taken from one of the emails seen by The Oxford Student: certain phrases have been removed to protect the student’s anonymity)
Balliol College has been accused of creating a “toxic environment” for students with mental health disabilities, after one student has claimed she was “effectively forced out” of the college by unsympathetic tutors.
A series of private emails sent by college staff and seen by The Oxford Student show what has been described as an “uncaring and unsympathetic attitude” toward Katie (not her real name), a disabled student who left the college on medical leave in 2013.
In one email, sent in February 2013 to an Oxford doctor, a member of Balliol staff lists in detail Katie’s medical difficulties before asking, “Yes, why did we admit her?”
In the same email, they go on to request for Katie to be seen by a doctor who is “straight and firm with histrionics and panic”.
This email was written under a year before two students at Balliol College took their own lives within a few months of each other, and has been described by Katie as shedding light on a “toxic” culture at the college, in which students with mental health difficulties were not taken seriously.
Katie, who suffers from multiple mental illnesses including OCD, Attention Deficit Disorder, and depression, obtained the college emails through a legal access request.
In one November 2013 meeting with a college tutor, Katie claims, she was repeatedly told she had an “exceptionalist attitude” toward her disabilities, formed by a “culture of Facebook and other social media”.
In another email, a Balliol staff member described a meeting with Katie, and expressed surprise that she had ever been admitted to the College. They wrote: “There was an uncanny moment when [Katie] actually said ‘Do you think [the admissions tutor] was acting weird when he admitted me’ – made me wonder if she had picked this idea up from the conversation of others or she is struck by the uniqueness of her admission as some of us might be.”
Katie has also accused the college of discriminatory behaviour after tutors moved her Trinity Term collections in 2013 forward to Hilary Term, despite not doing this for any other student of the same subject in her year.
In a Sunday Times article from April of this year, Balliol College was labelled “toxic” after two students – second year Physics and Philosophy student Andrew Kirkman, and first-year PPE student Jennifer Xu – took their own lives within a few months of each other.
Balliol College confirmed to The Oxford Student that a formal complaint is under investigation, and stated that it consequently could not comment on this case, although the college insisted that it has a “thorough and caring approach which is not fairly represented by selectively quoting from email correspondence”.
Chris Pike, OUSU VP for Welfare and Equal Opportunities, commented: “All tutors and academic staff should be considering mental health and disability in a supportive rather than critical manner. In order to combat stigma and oppression we must all, as far as possible, trust what students say instead of treating disabled students with mistrust or assuming they are just trying to shirk or avoid work.”