The Response: Should You Tell Your Professor About Your Anxiety/Depression?

Posted by on Jun 5, 2012 in Communicating with Professors, General | 17 comments

I just thought this felt happy, even though some poor old-school keyboard suffered in the process.

(When we left off last week, a student wrote in wondering if is appropriate to tell a prof about issues with anxiety/depression that could affect class performance. I am simplifying, but here’s the post. Here is my response to the student. I also consulted Jennifer Sandler, who heads up Access/Disability Services at Highline Community College, for back-up). 

Dear Student,

I’m going to attempt to give you the best advice that I can. Not to get too cheerleader-y on you, but I’d like to first celebrate the fact that you’re moving forward! Many people with anxiety/depression would stay stuck and not even try to battle through it. You are in the fight!

First of all, so what if your first year was a disaster? We’ve all had times like that (seriously… don’t for one minute think that many of your profs haven’t been there–and many haven’t faced half of what you have!). Anxiety and depression meds take weeks to ramp up and get to a therapeutic level. Any profs who have experience with this either themselves, with family members, or with students, are going to understand. So, remember, what you are going through is not going to be hugely surprising or unusual to many of them. Sounds like you are turning a new page, so please don’t beat yourself up for what was. I want you to own the fact that you are taking huge steps to get ahead in your goals. Try to feel some empowerment and positivity about that because you deserve to feel that way!

Now, let’s tackle the issues:

My first and biggest question is this: If you are already registered with your disability office, do they know about your anxiety/depression?

*I’m going to break away from the response here for a second. For other students out there without a disability, please read because this is important! If a physician is treating you for anxiety and depression and you require special academic accommodations due to this, then run to your campus Disability Services office to find out if you qualify for assistance! Back to my response now…

You may think that anxiety/depression does not “count” as a disability, but, indeed, they may! I had a student who had extreme speech anxiety (we’re talking way outside of the normal jitters here). This student was registered with the Disability Services office for anxiety and through the student’s psychiatrist, we were able to get accommodations for a smaller audience size. I’m just telling you that there are lots of creative possibilities for help. I’d like to see you get a team behind you for assistance!

Second, have you engaged with Counseling Services? On many campuses, these services are free. The counseling area is designed not only for therapy with licensed counselors, but also to assist students with any personal or academic barriers that hinder their success. I am just thinking that this could be yet another avenue for you to put together your college success team.

Finally, your main question: Should you approach your professors? I say absolutely.

My personal mantra is that secrets don’t help people. I see what you’re saying that you’re in a professional relationship with professors, so why tell them your life story? But, this is a little different. The profs aren’t your bosses and it is a different environment. Professors are your partners. They are not going to yell at you (if one does, you have the right to report them to a department/division chair for misconduct, actually), but they should be compassionate, or at the least, work with you to help you figure out what you need to do to be successful. I think simply saying, “I was a 4.0 high school student, then struggled unexpectedly with the transition to college, which led to some issues with anxiety and depression. My grades suffered, along with my health. I’m back on track now, though, at times, although I’m stabilized on medications, I have bouts of anxiety and depression and am concerned about this affecting my academic success.”

You don’t have to over-disclose, just give the overview of your concerns. Then, discuss the actions you’ve already taken or the ones you plan to take. Profs react so much better to proactivity than when they are forced to be reactive, so show what you’ve already done: “I’ve registered with the Disability Services office. I’m going to the counseling services office to see what suggestions they might have for me. I am going to get one or two accountability buddies in class and work with them.”

Then you can ask, “Do you have some recommendations or some ways that I can keep tabs with you so I can stay on track?” This will let your prof know that you are serious about longitudinally staying focused.

Student, of course, you aren’t alone. Profs who have been teaching for any length of time have met all sorts of students. And students, like yourself, who come to us and tell us of their struggles are often the ones who we keep in touch with for a long, long time. You may make some allies for life–profs who you can turn to to keep tabs on you throughout your entire education!

Now let’s focus on those former grades that are making you sick to think about: Does your institution have something called “Academic Renewal”? You may have seen me blog about it before. This is a mechanism that many institutions have where you can wipe a term clean. You can typically only do it once and you’d have to be willing to let the whole term go. But, if your institution has it, the process might make you feel a little bit better. If your institution does not have it, then stop looking at your transcript for now. Don’t let it plague you. Let’s focus on improving it.

I hope that some of what I’ve advised has been helpful. Look forward to hearing from you again.

And from Jennifer Sandler:

I read my letter to Jenni and she said I hit on much of what she would say. Then she added:

-”Tell professors exactly what you need from them. Don’t make them guess what they need to accommodate you. Clear communication between yourself and the prof is key.”

-”If you are going to self-disclose your disability, have a very good reason for doing so. If the accommodations are spelled out in your letter from your Disability Services office, giving too much information may not always be a good thing, so decide what information is really necessary.”

-”Remember that if you tell your prof about a disability or any issue that you have, this does not give you a ‘free pass’ or make the prof your ‘buddy’. Your prof just has this additional information to help you.”

-”I remind students that professors make accommodations with a small ‘a’ for students every single day: ‘I’m going to let you do turn in your paper on Friday instead of Wednesday’. This is very different than having actual accommodations and going through the proper channels through a Disability Services office. If you have an issue that requires documentation and accommodations, this must be registered with your campus office in order to get official support.”

It took a tremendous amount of courage for the student to write in with this issue. I hope that the question and the response helps many others. If you have other thoughts or ideas, or words of encouragement, I’d love it if you’d post a comment.


  1. Love this, I plan on sharing this post with my students!


    • I SO appreciate it, Eric! I know there are many students out there who struggle with this issue! Many people out there who struggle with it!

  2. I loved these posts, thank you! I am not sure that I will ever register with my school, but I learned how to handle mine over this past year. I am an honors student in a competitive program. I don’t know of any applicable modifications would help me.

    • Hi, Stacy,

      Thank you so much for writing! You know, you raised an excellent point that I was thinking about yesterday evening: Students do not have to register with Disability/Access Services for anxiety/depression, but I wanted to make it known that if the situation is serious enough, this is an option. Certainly, registering is not a requirement in order to tell a professor about challenges. If greater accommodations are needed than just letting a prof know about basic concerns (such as the case with my student who had extreme anxiety and could not speak in front of large groups of people), this is where the Disability Services office could be helpful.

      I really appreciate you writing and BRAVO to you for your honor status! It sounds like you are doing extremely well :-) .

    • Right on-htis helped me sort things right out.

  3. This has been so helpful but I’m afraid I’m in the pickle student mentioned earlier, where I have let myself fall quite behind in one class and I’m slipping more and more in the other two. I’ve had school related anxiety for as long as I can remember, I got it under control near the end of high school and lost it again completely in university. Last year I took a year off but it was a terrible stressful year where I tried to convince myself I could enroll late in classes I was semi-attending and second semester could be my salvation. But when I didn’t enroll second semester I had to come clean to everyone. I did some group therapy which I didn’t really enjoy and enrolled for summer school and that’s where I find myself now. Skipping class alternating between procrastinating on the internet and plugging away at a paper that’s late.

    • Hi, Laura,

      My heart really goes out to you and I’d like to be helpful. First of all, my most obvious question is, have you told your professor anything that is going on? You said you had to “come clean to everyone,” but did that include people at the college? Have you sought some assistance through your institution i.e., your college’s counseling center? (In the spirit of confidentiality, I understand if you don’t want to answer that here :-) .

      There are mechanisms to assist you with anything that is hindering your academic success. I’m not saying that miracles can occur in every situation, but I’m saying that we never know what the possibilities are without doing some investigation. That said, I also know that when you are feeling low, the thought of looking into ways to salvage the situation may seem incredibly overwhelming. If there is any way you can muster it, I encourage you to.

      If you are already in summer school, depending on when your term ends, I would definitely talk to your prof and see what you can recover from this term. Make peace with yourself that this may not be your ‘A’ term, but it may be your survival ‘C’ term and you’ll celebrate that (I’ve been there… many of us have!). Focus on just getting your credit, unless it is absolutely unrecoverable, but I would make that decision with your prof, if you can.

      Otherwise, if there is any possible way for you to just focus on getting through this summer term until you can be finished and doing what you can to finish, then you can figure out what makes sense regarding your continuation into fall. I would love to see you have some ongoing support through your institution, particularly through your institution’s ACCESS office if you qualify, like I mentioned in the piece, or at least through the counseling center, where you have others perpetually monitoring your emotional and academic progress so you aren’t having to do as much damage control (which just compounds the anxiety!).

      I also wonder if you have been able to pinpoint what the school-related anxiety is so you can start to deal with those particular issues and deal with them? Again, you do not have to answer that here. Feel free to e-mail me if you have other questions:

      I wish you all the best. Just know that you are NOT alone!

  4. Most people feel anxious or depressed at times. Losing a loved one, getting fired from a job, going through a divorce, and other difficult situations can lead a person to feel sad, lonely, scared, nervous, or anxious. These feelings are normal reactions to life’s stressors.But some people experience these feelings daily or nearly daily for no apparent reason, making it difficult to carry on with normal, everyday functioning. These people may have an anxiety disorder, depression, or both.,”;..

    Keep it up

  5. I am also going through anxiety/depression and this semester is the first semester that I have been dealing with it using talk therapy and medication. I just found it so hard to go to class (I know this is not an excuse) but it is what it is and I ended up over sleeping or missing class because of other work I had to do. My motivation has hit an all time low, I would psyche myself out about going to class before I even got out of bed. My issue is that one professor in particular has noticed my absences and I wondering if I should tell him about my personal issue. It is the end of the semester and I feel like its appropriate telling him just so he knows that its not because I did not care but that I was going through some personal obstacles and that I will work on my final paper with great effort. is it worth it to tell this professor?

  6. Just wanted to leave a brief comment on this article in thanks. I’m sitting in my car trying to convince myself to go into my class even though I’m late and I’ve missed the last two weeks. Everything I’ve looked up before hasn’t really given me a satisfactory answer to this issue, but here you’ve covered it really well. I know I’ve been struggling with depression for a while now, maybe years, but I’ve never done anything about it or even discussed it with anyone. I feel lazy and stupid for thinking it, like I’m making excuses, but I know I’m not right, that most people handle things better than me. I feel caught between my own self-depricating stubbornness and my inability to even take steps in the right direction. I’m thinking of taking your advice on this and at least speaking with this one professor. Hopefully it will do some good and get me moving forward. :) thanks again.

    • Emma, I believe I e-mailed you privately with the e-mail that was on your comment. I hope you received that! Ellen

  7. Thanks for sharing this post! It was very informative and helpful.

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