(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).
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.