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When My Mental Health Collided With My Identity as a Student

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

A couple of months ago, I sat in a paralegal school class wondering what would happen if my course instructors knew my medical history. They may have seen me as a dedicated student, but what would happen if they knew me as someone who had undergone three surgeries, multiple suicide attempts, and two years of eating disorder and mental health treatment? The mere thought of my health identity clashing with my identity as a student made me shudder, and as my mind drifted from legal research to my deepest fears, I hoped those two identity facets would never need to merge.

Unfortunately, less than a week later, I was unexpectedly hospitalized for my mental health, and though it wasn’t my first hospitalization, it was far more complicated than the rest. The other times I was hospitalized, I was independently employed, and I wasn’t in school, so disclosing my hospitalization or mental health status wasn’t an absolute necessity. This time, though, considering I was in the middle of my second quarter of paralegal school, my hospitalization spanned enough days that I would need to tell my course instructors why I would be missing their classes.

The prospect of disclosure was frightening to me — I had spent years compartmentalizing my health conditions and my identity as a student — and the age-old dilemma of how to balance each facet of my identity was coming back to haunt me.

I had spent most of my high school years struggling with then-undiagnosed anxiety and all of my college years battling both anxiety and depression. When I was in college, there were times when my anxiety was so severe that it affected my performance in my classes, but for the most part, I was able to complete my work like a mentally healthy student typically would. Therefore, although my professors may have had suspicions I struggled with my mental health, they didn’t know I was truly mentally ill, so I was able to safely tuck that piece of my identity away.

The one moment in college I was forced to disclose my mental health struggles to a professor was an experience I swore I’d never repeat. The night before a final in the middle of my senior year of college, I completely broke down as my anxiety mounted. In the middle of the night, I was hyperventilating, crying, and screaming for help. My mind was a blurred kaleidoscope of anxious thoughts, and I felt completely disconnected from reality. When the campus wellness unit and the housing staff arrived to help me, they booked me a counseling appointment for the following day — right in the middle of my final exam. A dean of students notified my professor that I would be missing the final, and while I wasn’t privy to the exact information he shared, I have no doubt my professor likely knew it was a health-related situation. My identity as a person with a health condition felt as though it was out in the open, and it left me feeling ashamed and vulnerable.

But when I was hospitalized just two months ago, I knew I had to face my discomfort with my “mentally ill” identity once again and inform my instructors that I would be missing their classes. I was nervous they would think my illnesses somehow made me a less dedicated, capable student or assume just one health emergency would reflect poorly on my ability to excel as a paralegal in the future. For the first time in years, my identity as a student and my identity as a person with health conditions would collide, and I was terrified of how my professors would react to my medical status.

My worries were unfounded, though. The instructors I emailed seemed concerned I had gone through a medical emergency, but they kindly expressed that they hoped I was doing better and gave me grace when I took extra time to catch up on my assignments. The fact I had a medical emergency — something I personally tied to my “taboo” identity as someone with health conditions — didn’t seem to faze them, and from that day forward, none of my professors treated me any differently than they treated my classmates. I had spent so much of my time in the hospital ruminating about the ways in which my medical history ran counter to the pieces of my identity I wanted to highlight and remembering the moments when my medical history did seem to define me in educational settings, that it never occurred to me my instructors might not define me by my medical experiences.

Although I still don’t feel completely comfortable sharing aspects of my medical life in educational settings, I now know that even when my “student” identity clashes with my “mentally ill” identity, I shouldn’t assume my professors will define me by my health experiences. There’s so much more to my life than my health experiences, but even if I have health setbacks in school, I have proof my professors will treat my health identities with respect and dignity.

Getty image by cyano66.

Originally published: April 1, 2022
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