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To the Professor I Told I Needed a 'Mental Health Day'

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Since I started college, I knew if I needed to miss class because of a mental health reason, then I was going to have to play up a physical ailment to use when the excuse “mental health day” didn’t come rolling out of my tongue or make it into my email. I usually just used food poisoning and bad sushi, but what I really meant was, “I’m having a panic attack and I’m not OK.”  Or even worse, “I’m so depressed I can’t get out of bed, let alone get dressed for class.”

Even so, I felt I was cheating myself out of my own life. If I couldn’t admit I needed a day for the mental portion of my health, wasn’t I creating more of a problem for myself?

I spent four years using excuses like those, until one day I gained the courage to send you an email, in which I used the phrase “mental health day” and “I’ll be back next class, but not today.” My stomach turned; I felt like perhaps I might actually have gotten a physical illness. It was all just a bad case of nerves and the underlying weight of admitting to an academic professional I didn’t have everything together.

But it isn’t any of those things I hold on to the most. It was the next day, when I went in to work. You happened to stop by the office and see me there, pale-faced, bags under my eyes, clutching a cup of coffee for dear life. I avoided looking your way, fearing the judgment I assumed was coming for me. You picked up your mail and stepped over to my desk to ask the five words I never expected to hear anyone say.

“Are you doing better today?”

For someone who has been struggling with depression, anxiety, stress disorders and normal college stress, I’d never been asked that. I’d spent four years of my life either faking my way through classes or creating an illness I assumed would carry more weight than whatever emotional baggage I had that day. Instead of laughing off my excuse as laziness, you came and asked if I was OK. You didn’t even have a backstory or know what it was I was struggling with. You simply took me at my word and wanted to make sure I’d come back to a better place.

In a world where mental health is still stigmatized and attendance is valued highly, thank you. Thank you for understanding that even though the words were easy for you to read, they weren’t easy for me to convey. Thank you for doing the one thing I never expected: treating me with respect, like a human being. I will carry that memory with me long past graduation.

Originally published: July 26, 2016
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