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‪(Content warning - some people may find this post distressing due to discussions of mental health and self-harm.

Hello academic community - I could use some advice! I’m a 1st year PhD student, and I went through a difficult time during my MA that I’d like to get some help with.

‪I worked as an Residential Advisor (RA) on campus for 4 years before my MA and during. It was a great job, but was also a lot of responsibility. The final year I was there (which was during my MA) I had a student living in my halls who was experiencing severe mental health issues. This was not a new situation, as sadly lots of students need extra support, and I had worked with students like this before.

‪One night, I received a call on the emergency cell from this student, at about 3am. They had attempted to take their own life, and due to issues within my RA team, I was the only one available to help. I went to the student’s room and saw the situation, carried out emergency first-aid, phoned the ambulance and then accompanied them to the ER.‬

‪I stayed with the student for the night until they were discharged, and arranged for further support. However, to cut a long story short, the student began to contact me both day and night via email and phone, saying that if I didn’t go to their room to speak to them as and when they asked, they’d do it again.

‪In the end, I was diagnosed with PTSD in relation to what I saw when I went to the student’s room that first night. After this, they called me repeatedly, hourly, 2, 3, 4am, and sent emails several times a day.

‪I sought help from the higher ups in the RA team, as we were supposed to in this kind of situation, and though they were aware of this student and the issues going on, they said they couldn’t do much to help me. I began to experience severe anxiety myself and became quite ill. In the end, I quit my job as an RA and had to move back to my parents’ house. This was over 2 hours away from campus. After this, I found my MA very difficult, and due to a combination of all of these circumstances, I was rejected for PhD funding a few months later. I wanted to explain to my Department what had happened, but felt too worried about breaching confidentiality agreements myself and getting into trouble in terms of the contracts I'd signed to be an RA.

‪When I didn’t receive funding, I spoke to the Head of Department (as in, my academic Department, not my RA team) about what my possible next steps could be in terms of funding, and almost told them, but instead I ended up getting upset and crying in their office. I said that I felt that I had been abandoned by my academic Department. The Head of Department was clearly upset themselves that I felt this way. It wasn't a nice interaction (though wasn't an argument) and after that, I didn't speak to any staff in the Department again. I just stayed home and tried to study and get better.

‪In the end, I left the University with my MA but also with no one and very few support networks, having isolated myself from everyone. Now I’m a PhD student and I did get funding. However, I feel regret about the way my education ending at my MA institution, which was a fantastic place and which I loved.

‪I also feel terrible every day about what I said to the Head of Department. They were the best teacher I’d ever had and they are also one of the foremost scholars in my current field. Eventually, the investigation into what happened with the student was closed quite recently - nothing ever came of it, and they graduated after an extra year out as far as I know.

‪My question is whether I should try to reach out to this academic to explain what happened to me and why I acted how I did and to apologise? If so, how should I do it? Via email, or in person? Or maybe it’s too late? I just feel terrible because to them, it must have looked like at one point that I just withdrew myself from the Department (when I was previously a hugely active member of the PG community there) and then blamed it on them.

Thanks in advance.

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    Would you please explain why an RA had to take care of a student? What's your field? Sociology? Are you a certified social worker? – scaaahu Jan 10 at 9:19
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    Oh no! I have just realised that RA as in Research Assistant and RA as in Residential Advisor obviously could be confused - so sorry! In this case, I meant the latter. I lived on-campus in student halls, taking care of students, as a Residential Adviser. – Gemma Murdoch Jan 10 at 9:23
  • I've edited to include Residential Advisor (RA). You can edit your own questions too, just click the edit link at the bottom of the question. – user2768 Jan 10 at 9:26
  • @user2768 - thank you! I did look for the edit button but couldn't see it - I appreciate you making the clarification for me. – Gemma Murdoch Jan 10 at 9:27
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    The only thing I can say is that if I were the Head of Department in question, I'd appreciate a lot to hear from you and having such an explanation. Doesn't really matter in which way. Your writing looks like the situation may not have been clear enough for the HoD to properly understand your situation, and the HoD may perceive you much more positively with a proper understanding of what went on. (I can't guarantee that of course - depends on what kind of person the HoD is.) – Lewian Jan 10 at 14:24
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I also feel terrible every day about what I said to the Head of Department. They were the best teacher I’d ever had and they are also one of the foremost scholars in my current field.

I think what you said to the Head of Department should have been expected and I think you should have been better supported.

‪My question is whether I should try to reach out to this academic to explain what happened to me and why I acted how I did and to apologise?

Given that you feel terrible, I think this might be a good idea.

If so, how should I do it? Via email, or in person?

Personally, I'd write a handwritten letter, and open the possibility for a future in-person meeting. Ultimately, you should make contact however you feel the most comfortable.

Or maybe it’s too late?

It's never too late.


Before proceeding, you could talk to a professional.

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  • Regarding, "the investigation into what happened with the student was closed quite recently - nothing ever came of it," do you mean the support system for RAs has not changed? If so, then you could raise this - at some time in the future - with the Head of Department, since it seems change is necessary. – user2768 Jan 10 at 9:23
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    The support system was investigated, and I found from speaking to other teams on-campus that the team I was in was actually pretty poor in terms of support. As far as I know, the manager of my old team has now been replaced (not as a result of this, though). I agree that change is necessary, but I am no longer at that institution - I am not sure if I could still raise the issue as an "outsider" now? – Gemma Murdoch Jan 10 at 9:26
  • There's no reason why you can't raise the issue as an "outsider". An inside intermediary, e.g., the Head of Department, may be able to help. For instance, they probably have senior contacts (above your old manager) in positions of power. – user2768 Jan 10 at 9:29

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