Friday, September 16, 2011


One of the measures my university has taken to tackle the issue of mental health problems among the student body is to set up an administrative position to advocate for students when they feel they cannot (for whatever reason) engage faculty on academic issues.

Usually this means that the administrator verifies illnesses or deaths in the family, etc. for a professor, or explains that they have been working with the student to come up with a plan to catch up on work in classes that they have fallen behind on. Although occasionally they intervene in a case of unprofessional conduct on the part of a TA, RA or professor. This system assumes that the vast majority of student body will not try to abuse the system to get out of doing work. Given the particulars of the student body I am lucky enough to work with, this system works here. It would not in other universities I've been at.

Suicide rates, drug use, depression and other mental health issues are a serious problem on this campus, and as faculty, we are encouraged to be aware of these issues, and keep an eye out for possible symptoms. As an individual who has personally wrestled with these problems, I am sensitive (possibly overly) to the plight of a student at a competitive school struggling with mental health issues.

I recently had a student come talk to me about having a hard time during the term. When he didn't turn in his final exam, the administrator asked me if I'd be willing to grant him an extension for it. Because of words said and unsaid, I assumed that this student needed an extension for mental health reasons. I gave a counteroffer to the administrator that was more generous than it needed to be. Time passed. The student missed the deadline, this time without contacting me. The administrator notified me of physical health issues. I set a new deadline. Time passed. The registrar asked me if I had a grade for the student, given that the second deadline had come and gone. I had neither seen nor heard anything from the student and gave him a grade based on previous work.

.... And I hear from the student asking for another extension.

I understand having a hard time in college. I understand being intimidated by professors. I want to be as lenient as is helpful. But I don't want to be the softie who allows a system set up to help students get over a rough patch be abused. I am disappointed in myself for my actions, and disappointed in the student for his. But I don't know how I'll act next time.

Other disabilities and illnesses have clearly defined policies and expectations for the student and professors to maneuver in. I've taught students with ADHD and MS who get 1.5 time on exams. I've had note takers accompany students with vision or hearing difficulties into the classroom. I've known friends with chronic physical illnesses have their doctors regularly contact professors for appropriate extensions whenever the illness acted up. I'm not saying that these concessions are enough to level the playing field for the students. But they give professors something to work with.

Mental health seems to be different. Insurance often doesn't cover treatment for mental illness well. There is a much greater stigma attached to admitting that one has a drug problem than to admitting that one has Chrohn's disease. As a result, even at a university that tries to be aware of students' mental health needs, those suffering come up with ad hoc solutions to the problem. And as a professor who wants to help, I have no idea what to do.


  1. Great points. I'm not a professor (obviously) but I do wonder about this in dealing with family, friends and coworkers. Like how can you tell when someone is suffering from what might be a legitimate mental or physical problem, or they are just being lazy and maybe using you in the process. I hate it. I want to be supportive. But if they just need to plan better or "suck it up" like the rest of us, I also want to be the one to say "hey, we all go through this, you can go through this too, you don't need special accomodations." I just don't know.

  2. I am very sympathetic to wanting to be helpful, but I end up at a slightly different place. Instead, I would really prefer it if the deans were to treat mental issues so identically to a physical injury/disability that I have no idea what is going on.

    When a student is in a car accident, for instance, I am told what happened when asking for me to grant an extension. This leads me to assume (possibly incorrectly) that if they don't tell me it is mental health. This means that it is easy to behave in a discriminatory fashion, even unintentionally.

    I am not the expert on injuries/disability/mental health. The experts in disability tell me what accommodations to provide in a disability situation, I wish I could get the same thing for all health situations.