(Content warning - some may find this post distressing due to discussions of mental health/self-harm.
Hello 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 further support. However, to cut a long story short, the student began to contact me day and night via email/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 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. I began to experience severe anxiety myself and became quite ill. (1)
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 about what my possible next steps could be, and almost told them, but instead I ended up getting upset and crying in their office. I said that I felt thatI had been abandoned by the 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. (2)
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. (3)
Thanks in advance.
I am sorry for these bad encounters. It is brave from you to admit you were mistaken. I think the best is to write an apology Email. Late is better than never. You can include a statement like "I do not expect a reply". Everyone makes mistakes and those academics must have seen worse. Then put all behind you and just move on with your life. Alternatively, you can send a greeting card with a short apology.
You had a lack of support in your RA role and were dealing with a complex situation you should not have been left alone to deal with like it sounds you were. This put you under a lot of stress. It clearly still affects you how things were left with your Department so I would advise getting in contact as I think this would help you. I would disagree with putting statements like 'I do not expect a reply' however. Personally I would start with saying what you are doing know, hopefully you are getting on well with the PhD and could mention that. Try to keep the message positive and not too long. Then mention your previous RA role and briefly the issues you were dealing with without naming the student concerned and impact this had on you, and then apologise for what you had said. I'm pretty sure they will understand. I emphasise keeping this brief as they are more likely to then read and reply to the message.
The situation wasn't your fault and the university should not have forced you to deal with it by yourself. Your former head of department is human and will understand that. If you were close to him, he would be happy to hear that you are doing a PhD and succeeding in life.
I think you could send an email saying; that you were unhappy about how you left things after your last meeting, you had some difficult issues (add details if you want), that you have started a PhD at X studying Y and want to keep in touch in future. So that you aplogise as part of a keeping in contact email.
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