Student Question: Should I Tell My Professor About My Anxiety/Depression?

Posted by on Jun 1, 2012 in Communicating with Professors, General | 8 comments

There are so many of these on a college campus to help students with anxiety/depression.

(A student wrote in with this question quite a while ago and let’s face it, thousands of students–people, really–suffer from anxiety/depression! I have been corresponding with the student for some time now and want to update that the student is moving forward, so that is great news! I held on to this post because I wanted to consult with my own Access Services Office to ensure that I had all of my information correct and get some additional advice to offer up. I hope that what the student shared will help any other students who are struggling with the same issues! I’m going to start with the student’s question and then in Part 2, share my response, as well as that of our Access (Disability) Services expert.)


Hi Professor Bremen,

I struggle with a disability and have a secondary issue with anxiety and depression. I was not prepared for the effects that depression and anxiety would have on my studies. I sought help for both of these conditions in my second year of college, and  since then have been placed on several different medications.

A lot happened between when I was first diagnosed and now. I haven’t passed a test. I’ve barely received enough points to pass courses and professors passed me for compassionate reasons. I actually had to switch my major because I didn’t get the required C in any of the prerequisites. I’ve feared failure before the first lecture even began.

I have days when I can get up, shower, dress in clean clothes, eat three meals a day and study, but also days when I couldn’t even wake up let alone get out of bed.

Twice now I’ve had to petition my faculty dean to let me withdraw without academic penalty from courses. This means I have no failures on my transcripts, but several withdrawals. I can’t look at any grades without feeling sick.

I know how to ask for help as a student with a disability. I have had to do this all my life. But I am now just learning to ask for help as someone with depression and anxiety. Often I would send my professors emails partway through the term explaining my condition, but then be too sick to go and see them, feeling too anxious that they would tell me to drop their courses or be angry with me. I’ve always feared getting in trouble, and felt that going to talk to them would be an opportunity for them to yell at me. I didn’t want to cry in front of them either.

So given all this, I have a question. This year has been another terrible one, but since the new medications I don’t think future years will ever be as bad. My intentions are to contact professors in the summer, explaining my mental health issues, how they manifest, and how they’ve affected my academic life thus far. I may even have a medical note, an unofficial transcript and information about the medications I’m taking on hand, to bring home the gravity of the situation.

I’m uncomfortable about revealing  so much to adults with whom I’m to have a more professional relationship, but I don’t know how else to communicate how much I want to succeed and the barriers I’ve had to overcome in my attempts.

What do you think? Is this too much? Am I making myself too vulnerable?

I had a 4.0 GPA in high school, and still have the mentality that I can again achieve such grades, though I know that I’ve grown and matured so much in the past few years of pain and failure. I know I’m not the only student who’s faced challenges like these  so hope you can offer your frank opinion.

Thank you very much for your time in reading this.



I’m going to continue on Monday, but in the meantime, what are your thoughts? I’d love to hear them, and I bet Student would, too!




  1. The key things in this letter are the fact that the student focuses on the desire to do well and the knowledge that this requires hard work. The student is not happy about passing by “compassionate reasons” and is not looking for a free pass. In speaking to a prof, this can be important.

    Associated with that is the importance of making it clear that you are asking for the support to succeed. The level of detail regarding the mental illness is dictated by what a prof needs to know to provide appropriate support.

    The other thing to note is the assertion that this is a temporary situation. The past 2 years performance should not be taken as indicative of the student’s capability because they are the effect of uncontrolled anxiety and depression. Things have changed or are in the process of changing. With appropriate medication (under control, the prof doesn’t need details as their expertise is not in this area, the prof needs to know that an expert is involved and working with the student) the student can return to previous levels of achievement.

    To generalize from this case, it seems that if the situation causing under-performance has not been dealt with, advising a break from study to stop the effects of failure (to engage appropriately, etc) and to focus on dealing with the mental ilness would be reasonable. Once in a position where reasonable performance (as defined by the student as well as the professor) is possible, appropriate support to ensure success then becomes a reasonable request.

    I look forward to seeing your response and that of your access people.

    • Jo,
      I really appreciate your thoughtful and thorough response! I agree with you that the focus on desiring to do well is a huge factor. You’re going to see in my response next week that I attempt to help the student focus on celebrating that first.

      I also think that asking for the support to succeed is hugely important. Many profs–people in general–have dealt with anxiety/depression and are going to relate to this. Your response definitely crosses into what the Access Services folks said about the level of detail (so, good call there! :-) .

      I look forward to corresponding further. So glad that we were able to share some tweets on this and meet each other!

  2. First I must commend this student for taking the first step and asking for help (not an easy task). I work with students that are in a similar situation, but are not comfortable/don’t know how to ask for help.

    My short answer to the question would be yes, contact the professors and articulate your circumstances. Depending on the response, the student may need to seek out assistance from the ADA specialist (the student may even want to consult with this person first). There have been several situations over my short career where I have had to step in on behalf of a student as an advocate. Luckily most of the faculty I have worked with were very receptive and willing to be educated about the specific diagnosis.

    To parallel what Jo has already stated, the ADA specialist can help identify the amount of detail the student should disclose. Profs don’t need to know every intimate detail of the diagnosis.

    Don’t be afraid to ask questions and build a support team. The student must also have a good understanding of the ADA, and their rights. It is not easy asking for help, and I think this student has a bright future ahead of them.

    I look forward to hearing your response Ellen.


    • Eric,

      Thank you so much for weighing in! Your point about building a support team is so huge. Often, I’m sure you’ll agree, students feel so bogged down in their emotions… they feel so stuck… that they don’t realize just how much of a support team is available on campus to help them! You said that right in your first two lines.

      I’ll be posting my response, but I will say that any student for whom you’ve been an advocate was one very lucky student!

  3. As a mental health advocate, I was glad to read this letter. The student’s help seeking behavior so early on is a good sign for recovery.

    I can’t speak from the point of view of a professor, but I will say what I can.

    The student can work with disability services at the school and receive accommodation. They may be able to get extended time for taking tests, extensions on assignments, or even receive notes for the classes they miss.

    The student may also want to seek support from NAMI(National Alliance on Mental Illness). This is a nationwide organization that supports those with a diagnosis and also their families.They advocate for patient rights.

    • Susan,

      I am going to direct Student to your comment and appreciate your words so very much! The association is going to be a great resource! I know Student is definitely working on the accommodations right now, so that is good news!

      Did you see the follow up response to this piece?

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