When I told my professors about my depression

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Last week was spent bedridden with a fever fluctuating in the 100-103F range. It also happened to be finals week, so I wasted no time in requesting deadline extensions. I was relieved, though not too surprised, that my professors were generous and understanding enough to grant extensions stretching beyond finals week. But it made me wonder why reaching out to my profs with this request was such a no-brainer, when I was so reluctant to do the same last year when I was struggling with depression. If you think about it, what’s a better excuse to ask for help academically? When your body is sick, or when your brain is sick?

It took me a long time to muster the courage to tell any of my professors about my problem with depression. My counselor, knowing how much the condition was taking a toll on my mental capabilities, had advised me to inform them as soon as possible. At first, I didn’t think it would be necessary (it also seemed like TMI — would they even care?). As the depression got worse, I wondered if I was just using depression as an excuse for my stupidity and laziness. After all, I was spending most of my time just lying in bed and/or staring off into space, or playing brainless iPhone games. If I would just open a new Word Doc, I’d be able to work fine, wouldn’t I? (Wrong.) I suppose that was around the time the depression began to convince me that I wasn’t really depressed. Eventually, for the sake of my grades, I did email my professors about this, even though I remained half-convinced that I was a terrible person for exploiting this “little” medical condition.

This was Prof S.’s response to my email asking for Pass/Fail (instead of a letter grade). She was the first prof I’d told about how depression was impeding my academic performance. Not only did she grant my request, she graciously offered a Pass without requiring me to turn in a final paper at all:

Dear Karen,

I have struggled with depression on and off all my life; it is genetic in my family. It will pass! I will give you a P for the course. Meanwhile I hope that you are receiving the proper medical help.

No need to hand in a paper. If I can give you a word of advice — please be sure to consult both a counselor and a psychiatrist. Some depressions run their course in 9-10 months even without medication. But often medication is needed, even if for a show period of time. There is nothing  wrong with taking antidepressants. It is tricky sometimes to find the right antidepressant but when they start to work, they are worth their weight in gold.

S.

And this was Prof L’s response. I couldn’t afford to Pass/Fail this class because it was a requirement for my major, so instead I asked for deadline extensions:

Hi Karen,

An extension would be just fine. There is no need for an explanation, but I am glad that you are getting the appropriate medical attention. I know how difficult it can be to respond to treatment and to be open to people around you, so I am happy to see that you are taking the right steps. I’ve seen a lot of students who are too scared to get the help that they need, both medically and academically, when dealing with a mental illness, so know that you are handling this in exactly the right way. Let me know if you need anything, and also let me know if you’ll need some extra time on the final assignment.

R.

The genuine empathy and concern in both professors’ replies astounded me. They assuaged my fears of coming across as lazy or weak. And more importantly, in my confusion about my own mental state, they gently affirmed that depression was a complex illness that crippled people in very real ways. I know some college students who don’t feel like they can or should inform their professors about their depression. I would strongly encourage anyone in that position to do so without fear of judgment. Nobody talks about depression in class, but this doesn’t mean our professors know nothing about it. If they haven’t personally experienced it, given the amount of stress in academic circles, and also the number of years they’ve lived, our professors are a lot more likely than our own peers to have personally known someone who’s battled it. Either way, they will understand.

Note: Taking  a leave of absence from school might be a better option for others, especially if you are having recurring suicidal thoughts. Do discuss your options with your counselor and people who know you well!

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84 thoughts on “When I told my professors about my depression”

  1. Hi! I just want to thank you for writing this post. I’m currently battaling depression. I’m also nervous about emailing my professor about my mental illness this upcoming semester. I’be been in and out of school for a long time. I have two classes left and it’s a requirement for my major. But for some reason I think my professors will think I’m just trying to get by in their classes. When actually I’m working very hard to pass. I have a hard time remembering my formulas for my finance classes and struggle on my homework and exams. By the grace of God; I’ve been working hard in college without being diagnosed for years. I just thought it was laziness until I got treated by a psychiatrist and I’m also seeing a therapist. I had no idea how hard it was to do small tasks until I had an episode 2 years ago and hospitalized for a week. It was so scary being in a psych ward. I felt so lonely. Anyways, I’m so glad to know that your professors were understanding. I pray for the same thing this spring semester. I’m ready to finish college. Because at this point I really want to give up. But I know that is the easy way out… May God bless you all. 🙂

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    1. I so relate to this post as I was suicidal while I was at University. My professor told me I needed to see a psychiatrist as it was so obvious I was ill. But I tried to find a therapist and couldn’t find one. I was so ill I really needed the University to set me up with a counsellor but there was no such support in those days. I just battled on, very ill, I believe it is much better now.

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  2. Ok I can’t express to you how directly this post spoke to me. My anxiety and depression have both impacted my performance and attendance in school, and being afraid to be honest, my grades have suffered. I managed to struggle for three Bs and a C last semester when I’d made the Dean’s list the previous semester with more difficult classes. Like you, I felt as if the excuse “I just couldn’t get out of bed” would have been laughed or scoffed at, rather than understood and emphasized with. Thank you for this post. I hope I can get through my last few semesters without too much emotional turmoil, but hope doesn’t always work. Thanks to your post, I think I’ll be able to be a bit more upfront about what’s going on if and when the beast decides to show her ugly face.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I just had a similar experience this week except I don’t think I received the same kind of responses. I mean a couple of them replied in a way I wanted to cry because I was so overcome by their understanding… others… it was like well make sure you work harder on your assignments make a schedule… and it just made me feel embarrassed that I told them.

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  4. I wish I could say all my professors have been this understanding. I’ve struggled with – at times, debilitating – depression for years, and college has certainly not alleviated it. Some professors have been very kind and gracious, working with me and seeing my illness as the crippling battle it is. A couple are battling depression themselves – those are the most wonderful teachers for me. Some professors, though, have let show their unfortunate ignorance on depression with advice like ‘just keep trying’ or ‘set lots of alarms in the morning’. One professor even told me that being late (getting out of the house is the hardest battle for me) is ‘distracting’ to other students and ‘unfair to everyone’. She likened my ‘habits’ to a matter of disrespect.
    So I guess you have to gauge how well your professors might respond before you talk to them about being depressed.

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  5. Hello, thank you for writing this. I was on the fence about whether or not to inform my professors about my depression and anxiety and avoidant behaviors, but this helped me to see that I probably should.

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  6. Thank you so much for writing this. I literally began bawling as I read, clearly seeing I’m not the only one that as felt this exact way. It’s overwhelming, unbearable at times. I have been struggling with depression since puberty, but like so many others, have shrug it off and discredit it to laziness, weakness, even stupidity. I don’t WANT to be depressed. I don’t WANT to sleep all day and wake up as the sun goes down. I don’t WANT to miss class. I don’t WANT to be distracted all the time. But I do all these things regardless. I feel helpless and I never wanted to use this “excuse” with my professors. But after missing almost every class and an exam this week I decided it is time to take a step forward and talk to my professors. It’s embarrassing, but hopefully they will understand. I hit the send button after reading this article and comments. I hope that everyone who feels this way doesn’t for long.

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  7. This is a great post! During my A Levels at school my anxiety made ill to the point where i missed a lot of school. I NEVER missed school and once i was off for a week i felt like i had to explain myself to my teachers because it wasn’t likely to get better soon and i knew i would feel better if something happened while i was at school if they knew about it. But i was still nervous. They were beyond lovely and had every faith in me to work as hard as i could and offered me so much help. One even offered to come to my house to help me catch up! One teacher had a friend who had had the same problems so she was very kind. University i again emailed my lecturers when things got bad for a bit and it was affecting my attendance. Less response but i wasn’t too bothered about most of them except my tutor and he was very understanding. It was a situation where you knew he didn’t quite understand my situation but was trying to help how he knew how and i appreciated that. One of my lecturers bumped into my dad once during my bad time and my dad explained, the lecturer said his wife had problems too and i felt so much more comfortable in his lectures after that. He was also the only lecturer i saw give out the uni’s leaflets about anxiety/depression during exam time because he knew the stress could impact us but very few people paid much attention which was a shame. Thanks for this post! I encourage people to tell people like teachers/professors..you’ll be surprised how understanding many are! Those who aren’t as supportive are often just ignorant and don’t know how to help appropriately.

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  8. Thank you for bringing these issues to the public. More people need to be aware of the best ways to handle depression. Sometimes people are afraid to mention their illnesses. Your post shows that teachers and employers are usually very understanding and ready to provide support.

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  9. Hello, A very thoughtful post and I’m glad your professors were understanding. Unfortunately I know of a case where a university was not so helpful. However, on balance, I think it’s best to talk about mental health problems as they can be every bit as debilitating as a physical illness. In my experience, a doctor might be willing to give a general sick note for a few weeks if depression becomes overwhelming, so that you don’t have to go into detailed explanations with employers. Hopefully the prejudices will eventually be worn down. Thanks for liking one of my posts. I am new to blogging and still trying to find my feet!

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  10. Hi Karen, I came here to thank you for liking my post and stayed for your wonderful article about depression. It should be widely shared. cheers.

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  11. I was just wondering if I should email my professors about my OCD since it’s interfering with my performance in the class. I was worried that they’d think I was just making excuses, and I kinda feel like OCD isn’t widely understood as a serious condition (i.e. some people think it just means someone who’s nitpicky) so maybe they wouldn’t understand. This story gives me hope that will though, thanks for sharing.

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  12. Hi Karen! Your post is really encouraging, I’m struggling with the same situation. I tries one time to talk directly to one pf my professors about it and ended up getting more depressed when she told me “that I won’t make it if I keep it up like that and that she wont give me any extension for the finals” … I don’t know if the way I tried to approach her was wrong or is it just that she is not understanding but I got really worst since then and I’m really scarred to take the risk again and try to talk to professors about it again. I wish to know how did you approach/contact your teacher and what did you exactly told them

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Thank you for this post. My daughter is taking meds for Bipolar type symptoms. She has not been officially diagnosed by a Psychiatrist, but has talked with our primary care doctor who prescribed the meds based on her description of what she has/is experiencing.

    My concern is that she has quit her job, which I think is an impulsive response or because of the meds. As noted by those who have had similar experiences, working or going to school or day-to-day activities do not stop. However, the approach is more deliberate because of the road blocks that the mind puts in the way.

    I would appreciate suggestions on how to pull my daughter back down to earth. I don’t know if that’s the appropriate description.

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    1. Dear Celeste, thank you for sharing this with me. It must be scary and confusing as a parent as well (I know it was, and sometimes still is, for my parents). I think it would be wise to make an appointment to see a psychiatrist, especially since your daughter is on medication, so a specialized medical professional can assess her symptoms and also do proper medication management (adjusting dosage, possibly changing meds, as necessary). I don’t know whether it’s good or bad to stop work. I would imagine it wouldn’t be healthy in the long run, but perhaps it’s necessary while the medication is still being titration and the symptoms have not come under control. But again, it’s probably best to talk to a psychiatrist about the specifics since it varies from individual to individual. Personally, I had to withdraw from graduate school. It felt like a mistake and a defeat, but having a month or two off to recuperate was incredibly helpful. I’m all better now, but I’m still putting off grad school and working instead. A word of encouragement: various medical professionals have assured me that bipolar is very treatable (compared to unipolar depression) since it is primarily biological and can be managed via medication. I believe your daughter will eventually be able to bring her symptoms under control! She would just have to be diligent about medication, be self-aware in keeping track of mood changes, all of which her loved ones can help her with!

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    2. 1. Find a psychiatrist and work with them on the meds. Your daughter needs to understand what each medication does and how it affects her. Many of the meds for bipolar mania or hypomania can make you very sleepy, tired, groggy, or all of the above. Make sure she is not operating a vehicle or other dangerous equipment while taking these meds. If she is feeling any of these symptoms and is stopped by police for a violation she could be arrested for driving under the influence of a controlled substance even though it is a legal prescription.

      2. She needs to exercise. This is really important. You have to do everything you can do to make this happen. She will need your help. The best exercise to do in the beginning is walking. Start out slow help her work up to thirty minutes, then forty-five minutes, then sixty minutes. Try to walk a little faster each time you walk with her until you are moving at a brisk pace, but slow down as needed. The most important thing is to keep moving. This should be done once in the morning then again in the evening. The exercise will help alleviate the depression and stimulate the brain chemistry in positive way. This will stimulate her creativity and her motivation which will help her to eventually go back to work or school. The exercise will also help reduce the need for the medication doses that make her sleepy, tired, or groggy. Please be advised I said, “Reduce”, not eliminate. She must stay on her meds. If they are not working for her see number 1 above if the doctor is not working then find another doctor.

      3.Find a psychologist and go for counseling once a week. The counselor will help her work on coping skills and goal setting.

      4.Eat a common sense diet, lean meats, grains, fruits, vegetables of different colors. If you have cravings for sweets keep it to one sweet a day as a treat, but only one. Drink eight eight ounce glasses of water each day. If she can tolerate dairy make sure to include milk, cheese, cottage cheese and greek yogurt. Remember to check the packaging for appropriate serving sizes and stick to that. Nothing fancy just common sense.

      5.Get to sleep before ten pm and try to sleep until six or seven am.

      6. Make sure to have a plan for the day that you planned yesterday. Set a goal for each day that you can complete. It does not have to be big just something to have a sense of accomplishment.

      Work on these six steps and in six months to a year she will be back to work or in school. These six steps never stop. They need to be her lifestyle for the rest of her life. She will need your help in the beginning, but I am sure she is worth the effort. She is lucky to have you and you are lucky to have her. YOU’RE AMAZING!

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  14. Wow, if I thought I could have asked for help 25+ years ago, for college, and longer ago for high school, but I didn’t… Good for you. If I were a teacher I would definitely do everything to help a student gutting through an episode. I had a profound episode when I was just starting High School that lasted into my sophomore year, with waves before and after that. It wasn’t until recently my wife pointed out the trend that I started trying to analyze it, realize maybe it really is a problem, and I’m deciding what my best options are. I’ve had a recent trigger that isn’t helping my current meds at all.

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  15. It’s so funny…just two days ago I told my wife that it seems odd that I can take time off of work if I am “physically sick,” but I can’t call in “bipolar.” Or, I theoretically could, but that would have a damning effect on my career. Fun times.

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  16. Hey gorgeous girl, life is a sometimes ridiculously hard journey, at 50 I am still trying to work out what the hell is going on?! Everything is so full on without meds..but I am learning things to this day. You are brave beyond measure..thank you for visiting my site, love and whitelight, Roz xx

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