On the hook for $170K: RBC sues student forced out of med school by mental illness

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On the hook for $170K: RBC sues student forced out of med school by mental illness

When Bryan Robson was accepted to medical school, he never imagined he'd be diagnosed with a mental illness that would prevent him from becoming a doctor.

Now, he's being sued by the bank for more than $170,000 for a student line of credit he feels he'll never be able to repay.

"I guess I just felt trapped or helpless," Robson said.

Robson, who is from Dauphin, Man., was accepted into medical school at the University of Saskatchewan in 2012 after three years studying sciences.  

Getting a student line of credit was an easy choice, Robson said, because he knew he wouldn't be able to afford tuition and wouldn't have time to work during the rigorous program. Costs would be about $14,000 a year for tuition plus books, living and other expenses.

Robson went to the RBC in his home town and set about making the investment in his future. He said that, at the time, he felt protected signing the document after a quick explanation about premiums for insurance.

"It's a fairly hefty commitment, but luckily there is disability insurance and life insurance. But you kind of go into this not knowing the extra risks that medical students face," he said.

"It's kept pretty quiet but it's actually a pretty serious problem."

Pressures of the program

Two years into the program, Robson was experiencing depression and anxiety. He knew something was wrong, he said, so he took a year off.

"There is just, day in and day out, very heavy things about illness and witnessing suffering" he said. "It's described as drinking from a fire hose. I'm sure the workload as well plays into the stress. There is not a lot of sleep and not a lot of rest."

Although he tried for a while to resume the program, he was eventually diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder.

Medical students are at a high risk for depression and suicidal ideation, according to a 2016 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study found the incidence of depression among this group was 27 per cent, compared to eight to nine per cent in the general population.

High demands placed on the students, intense studying and sleep deprivation are contributing factors, the study said.

Derek Puddester, a psychiatrist at the University of Ottawa who used to run wellness programs for medical students with mental health issues, said high debt loads add to stress levels. 

"We've developed a system in which the tuition for some of the health professions has gotten so high that I would imagine that only the very rich can easily afford to enter the profession, or those who are able to commit to staggering debt loads," said Puddester. "And neither of those situations sounds particularly Canadian to me."

Puddester said it's a sad situation, but not uncommon. "This is a young person with great potential who is living with a very serious mental health problem."

In the fall of 2015, Robson finally left the program for good.

"I felt a weight lifted off of my shoulders … I felt like I had made the right decision."

'In no way capable of servicing the loan'

After leaving school, Robson said he went to an RBC location in Saskatoon assuming everything could be worked out. He thought he was covered by the disability insurance.

"I went in with my rose-tinted glasses thinking that, 'Yeah, well here I am,' let's go find out what kind of medical documentation they need or figure out where we go because I was in no way capable of servicing the loan. I was barely meeting my living expenses," he said.

A representative at the bank told him that the insurance wouldn't cover it, and that he was on the hook for the $170,000, said Robson. 

While a good portion of the money was used for school expenses, Robson said that some of the debt was amassed during spending sprees, a common symptom during manic periods.

He decided to take some time to regroup, and focused on doing yoga while working at an orchard in British Columbia.

While out of Saskatchewan last summer, Robson said he received a call from the bank during which he was told that mental illness isn't the same as physical illness, and he would have to pay back the money.

Soon after, the bank filed the paperwork to sue Robson, but he didn't get it until January.

Meanwhile — unaware of the lawsuit — Robson filed a complaint in November with the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

In an emailed statement to CBC, RBC said they "do not take allegations of discrimination lightly and ensure all clients are treated with fairness and respect in their dealings with us."

Since Robson returned to Saskatoon he has been picking up a bit of work as a non-qualified substitute teacher, but said that with the lawsuit and giant bill hanging over him, it's hard to move forward.

"I just want to get back to society, to the normal people, find something that I'm good at, and do it," he said.

Expected to repay in most cases, RBC says

In the statement RBC said they are unable to comment on specific situations due to client privacy, but that when a client applies for a loan or insurance coverage, they are made aware of the terms and conditions.

"For student lines of credit, it is important to note that clients who choose not to complete or are unable to complete their studies, for whatever reason, are expected to repay the loan," the statement said.

RBC added that if a client qualifies for disability coverage, and needs to access the coverage during their studies, the client can make a claim and the insurer determines if the claim is payable under the terms of the coverage. Disability insurance covers both mental and physical disabilities.

But Robson said he was told he wouldn't be eligible for the disability insurance until after he graduated.