Chaplaincy and the Medical Model

Last Friday I ran into a student who was looking a bit disorientated – not unusual at the start of the year for someone new to University. I asked if I could help and she told me she was looking for a centre that offered support for students. She said she had seen it on the Flinders website and she thought the website said it was in this vicinity.

I immediately thought there could be at least three options. We were standing outside the International Student Services Unit – could it be there? No, she was not an international student.

We were also outside one of the rooms of the Student Learning Centre – was she looking for help with her study skills? No, she had “walked out of an exam because she had had a panic attack” and “I need to look at my workload”.

Well, maybe you were thinking of Health and Counselling. They help with these things and could get you some kind of an exemption from failing the exam. “No I don’t want Health and Counselling. They’re booked out weeks ahead.”

I was a bit surprised at her negative reaction to Health and Counselling. Obviously she had had dealings with them already. But at this moment the student was clearly distressed and a discussion about the benefits of Health and Counselling wasn’t going to help.

I thought that perhaps she might get a hearing with one of the Student Advocacy Officers in Flinders One. ‘Why don’t we go up to the Student Hub and talk with one of the Welfare Officers?’ This didn’t tally with her recollection of what she had seen on the FLO website, but, after some discussion and having ruled out the other options she agreed.

As we walked to the Student Hub she talked about CentreLink and how they don’t give you enough money to survive. I quietly noted her reaction against traditional welfare bureaucracy.

We arrived and two welfare officers were sitting behind the reception counter. I introduced her and then she began her story again, with the same questions from them and responses from her.

 I felt her frustration. “How come the most vulnerable have to go through this process at the very point of their vulnerability?” I thought. Given her agitation, why didn’t the Welfare Officer at least come out from behind the forbidding reception counter to show some empathy?

After some more question and answer, the Welfare Officer made a suggestion that she see the Disability Officer. There was some convincing that her panic attacks were in fact a disability and she finally agreed.

So off we walked to Health and Counselling to see the Disability Officer. The receptionist in the Waiting Room told us that she was on the phone. So we retired away from the area in which several people were sitting. A TV on the wall was entertaining itself. We waited, standing well away, near the entrance to the room. She told me about her childhood and some experiences she had – with a Student Exchange that went badly wrong in Denmark, how her parents split and she went to China to see if a change in environment would help her get control of her panic attacks. Why China of all places? That was where her father was. The change in environment worked. But now, back in Australia, the anxiety was back.

I realise why the people in the Waiting Room sit in absolute silence. It is not possible to have any kind of conversation without everyone hearing it. People are probably wondering what everyone is doing there anyway – like a scene from “As Good as it Gets”!

 Soon the Disability Officer arrived and we retired to the corridor outside the Waiting Room to talk. Yes, she will see her but she will have to make an appointment. She is booked solid for all of next week. But she convinces the student to make an appointment, otherwise she would never get to see her. She agrees at last, and, before they return to the reception counter to make the time, I invite her to drop by if she would like to continue to chat. I think it unlikely, but you never know. I leave them to it, and leave, wondering why any student with mental illness wouldn’t take the easy way out and jump off the Uni bridge.

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