Stop Lying to Professors About Your Depression (and Other Ways I Learned to Survive College)
I went into my freshman year of college fearful for my life — believing with 100 percent certainty I would not even make it to the legal drinking age. I was sure I would kill myself. If my depression wasn’t stressful enough, let’s add college on top of it… I thought this would definitely push me over the edge.
Now, as a senior, I start the semester personally contacting each of my professors about how I’m dealing with depression. Which seems a little odd, but here is why I do it:
My first year at Purdue University, I was struggling horribly to stay on top of my work. Not because I am not hardworking, but because my memory was nearly nonexistent. It did not matter if I went to class because I couldn’t focus. Not like, “Oh! I am just distracted,” but like, “Did I even go to class today? What did we talk about?” It was scary and frustrating.
I would spend more time reading material and completing a simple written paragraph than many of my peers. Most of my energy was used trying to stop suicidal ideations from flooding my mind. Have you ever tried to cover a running garden hose by just putting your hand over the spout? That’s what it was like. Lots of pressure, leaking, inevitably exhausting and basically impossible.
I initially thought I couldn’t tell my instructors about my depression. I fed into the stigma that depression is not a “real” illness. Therefore, I had to take round about ways to make it through college.
First, I decided I would go to the disability resource center on campus to see what I could do and have a “legit” excuse to get extra time for my work. They told me I needed a doctor’s note and that they could give me extended test times and a private, quiet space for taking exams. That sounded reasonable to me. I was satisfied with the accommodations.
Next, I had to take the letter of accommodations from the center to each professor. Most were understanding, but I did have one professor who was completely disturbed by this accommodation. He asked, “Why am you taking this class if you need accommodations Dropping the class may be a better option.” I could sense his frustration in having to take five more minutes to assign me three separate exam dates. Like I was such a burden. That didn’t help the depression whatsoever.
For my other classes, this accommodation seemed to work well for exams and quizzes… but when it came to attendance, papers and projects, I was at a loss.
So, my second attempt to avoid telling my professors I had depression was to lie, like many college students do to avoid coming to class or facing a deadline.
I’d send an email to my teacher of my unfinished assignment with any excuse except for “depression” because “it’s not real.” It looked something like:
Alex from class just informed me we have a written response to the chapter due today by class time. I don’t know why, but I never received that email about that added assignment. Can you please add me to the class email list? Is it also possible to have an extra day to complete this assignment since I was not aware of it?
Have a great afternoon!
I have strep throat and therefore cannot turn in a hardcopy of my report to you as I am still contagious. I realize this is an an inconvenience, but is it acceptable to just email you the report by the end of today just so you know I finished it? I will bring in a hardcopy to the next class.
Have a great afternoon!
Just shit like that. All of which, in my head, was more acceptable than explaining my depression.
Finally I cracked. The pressure was too much. Everyone, besides myself, thought it was best to take some time away from school. So, I did. This gave me time to think about how I was going to survive my last year in college.
And I realized depression is not meant to be a secret. I wanted people to understand that sometimes, like allergies, depression flares up and affects my everyday functions. It’s debilitating. And to be functional, I have to work through it. Like for the flu, you need bed rest. For depression (the depression I’m dealing with anyway), I needed to focus on the plan I had developed with my therapist.
Finally, after eight months, I was going back to college.
My first assignment back in college. Advanced Presentational Speaking:
“Introduce yourself (What should we know about you? What has inspired you? Why are you who you are?)”
This. This was my chance. This f*cking debilitating illness that had been been latched onto me for half of my life. They needed to know. This is what has made me experience life differently. I was the first speaker to present.
I walked to the front of the class of only about 16 people, and told them that intensive therapy saved my life. That I’m still recovering and I needed everyone’s support. I completely opened up, without gruesome details, but told them how this illness has impacted my life. This is me. A survivor.
Then it hit me: Why am I lying to get accommodations for assignments, exams and projects? I decided to stop following the stigma. If I was struggling, I would email my professor. For example, if the depression was really bad, an email might look something like this:
I’m unable to attend class today and maybe the next few classes. I am fighting depression and right now, I need to focus on myself. I understand if I lose participation points or cannot make up assignments. I am willing to do extra work to make up for missed assignments and absences. I also can have my therapist write up a letter explaining this illness if you need. I am sorry for any inconvenience I have caused. Any accommodations for assignments would be very much appreciated. Please let me know if there is anything I can do while I am taking the time to maintain my mental health.
Feel free to call me at xxx-xxx-xxxx if that is more convenient.
Thanks for your time,
My instructors thanked me for my honesty. Almost all of my teachers allowed me to do things at my own pace when I asked, as long as if it was within reason.
This lenience comes with trust. I am not one to skip classes or not do my work. So I knew I had to show I was truly making an effort. I went to office hours. I’d participate in class. You have to do small things. You have to try. You have to start somewhere. I wanted — I needed my professors’ trust. I need it so I can actually graduate.
Here is, in my opinion, the best way to survive school when you have depression:
1. Email your professors before the first day of class and ask if you could meet with him/her during a scheduled time or office hours to discuss the upcoming semester and how you can be the most effective student.
2. At the appointment, jump right in. Professors are super busy and if they’re kind enough to not pawn you off on a teacher’s assistant, respect their time. I know this is difficult. I spend at least half of my therapy appointments saying nothing of substance.
Explain how you’re working on your health, and wanted to inform him/her you may struggle at points in the semester. Not because you aren’t trying, but because you are recovering.
3. Set up a plan with your instructor in case you can’t make it to class due to panic attacks, a trip to the hospital, an emergency appointment with a therapist, or if you just need a mental break so you don’t burn out. Here’s how I do this:
Step one: Email your professor as soon as you feel like you might be late to class, miss a class or need extra time on an assignment. Even if you are 75 percent sure you will get the assignment done on time or will be in class, go ahead and let your professor know in advance.
Usually, professors appreciate the heads up. One, it shows you aren’t trying to avoid going to class. And two, it’s respectful. I mean, college is like a job. It’s important to have good work ethic.
Step two: Read and read and reread the syllabus. Understand every expectation of the instructor and find the rules for absences, late work and tardiness. Most instructors have a few freebies for absences just in case someone is horribly ill. Use them wisely. Seriously. And even if they are freebies, make sure you still let your professor know if you are missing class. Always keep him/her in the loop of what’s going on… just in case things get bad. It may seem like overkill, but just in case something goes wrong on your end, it’s nice to know your instructor actually knows who you are.
Step three: If you are really struggling, email your instructor and politely ask for an extension. Always make sure you look through the syllabus and reiterate that you know and understand x, y, and z rules, and know they may not want to give you an extension. In which case, ask if any other opportunities will be available to make up points. Make sure if they do need a therapist note or doctor note, you have one. And offer to provide it.
Instructors aren’t always going to understand. Especially if all the due dates are handed to you in the syllabus the first day of class.
“What do you mean you couldn’t finish this on time? You have known about this assignment for a month.”
To which I would have to argue, “Depression can sneak up on you. Sometimes triggers are just thrown in your face and boom, two weeks are gone. Where did they go? I don’t even remember. That’s how this depression affects me.”
For those instructors who really do not get it, I do go out of my way to send them research on depression and how it affects focus, memory and general energy. I get notes from professionals explaining this is a real problem. If you decide to do this, just be respectful.
I realize this is a lot of work, but it takes work to get things worth having.
I hope this helps students out there like me. I know it’s really difficult to handle the stress of school on top of maintaining your mental health. You can do it! Good luck on all future educational endeavors!
Follow this journey on Roses in Her Cheeks.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.