To my students with mental illness

This semester record numbers of my students told me that they are suffering from mental illness. Sometimes these disclosures occurred as part of broader conversations, but most often they occurred because the students wanted me to grade them differently than I otherwise would have. I’m not talking about times when students provide an official form documenting that they should receive specific accommodations for a disability. I’m also not talking about times when a specific medical or personal crisis happens to coincide with an exam or assignment. I’m talking about situations for which there is no paperwork whatsoever, in which students are very distressed about the possibility that they will receive lower grades because they have missed classes, missed deadlines, or done poor/disorganized work as a result of ongoing mental health problems. These situations weigh heavily on me, because although I find it easy to feel compassion for these students, I often cannot give them the grades they want.

A recent essay (Virzi, 2015) captures some of the difficulties that I experience when trying to address the academic challenges faced by college students with mental illness: “When you told her to work harder, she heard you say she wasn’t good enough. When you asked her to drop your class, she heard you say she was a failure.” Written in the form of a letter to the professor of a friend with life-threatening mental health problems, the essay states that the professor had treated the friend with a profound lack of understanding and support. But while there are many problems with how colleges handle mental health issues, the professor targeted for so much disdain in this piece doesn’t seem to be one of them. Unless the professor went about it in an inappropriate or cruel way that we aren’t told about, he/she seems to have taken all the correct steps to help his/her student face and handle the fact that severe illness had taken a toll on her class performance. When a student’s accumulated grades are likely to result in an unsatisfactory course grade, the student can start doing much better in the class (which will require somehow working harder at it), withdraw, or continue as-is and fail. It is unfortunate that the student interpreted these options as an insult or expression of insensitivity by the professor, because in fact they were just the possible outcomes of the difficult situation that the professor was trying to help the student navigate!

By encouraging the student to drop his/her course, the professor was responsibly suggesting that she prioritize her recovery ahead of academics while also taking the necessary step to prevent having an F on her college transcript. But the essay goes on to suggest that professor should have instead encouraged the student to stay in the course, “because it is the only thing in her life that makes her feel normal.” Perhaps this plan might make sense if the student had been auditing the class as a form of occupational therapy, or otherwise had no concern about her grade in it — but college is a lot more like a job than like therapy and chances are that a low/failing grade would not have been well-received. The author also seems to assume that offering the student extensions would have solved the entire problem, though extensions are not always an option, and an unrealistically large pile of overdue work can easily set any student up for failure. Indeed, sometimes a student has already missed or performed poorly for so much of a course that it is no longer possible to pass. The essay portrays the student’s grade as entirely in the professor’s hands, but it is not.

The essay concludes that by addressing the student’s class performance, the professor didn’t treat the student as a human being, didn’t sufficiently acknowledge her struggles, and failed to appreciate her strengths. “Professor, my best friend is smart, driven, and capable….help me celebrate her for fighting this illness.” Here the argument becomes very strange, because college courses are not really intended to celebrate anyone. It is also hard to imagine that the student would have felt celebrated in the absence of a good/passing grade, even if the professor did regularly ask her about her feelings. Importantly, the author isn’t just advocating that students with mental illness should feel more welcome on campus or have more access to mental health care, she is arguing that it is wrong for professors to evaluate these students based on standards for performance. She is saying that by doing their jobs, professors are enforcing cultural stigma and are therefore part of the problem.

I have many students who receive accommodations for learning disabilities and/or ADHD. Typically these accommodations have to do with how students take the required exams (e.g., extended time, quiet spaces) and occasionally a designated note-taker. But I have never seen a document saying that any student should receive accommodations for attending class and completing projects by deadlines that are set far in advance. Another recent essay (Ruriani, 2015) argues that it is unfair of professors not to allow this kind of flexibility to students with ongoing mental health problems. The conclusion is a plea for professors to “look at the whole person” when grading, rather than penalizing students with mental illness for their difficulties meeting the course requirements. While I agree that no one should be harshly penalized for imperfect attendance or imperfect anything, I don’t think most classes could function if the requirements weren’t actually required. I also don’t think absolute flexibility is a reasonable expectation in most aspects of adult life. Finally I have no idea how professors could fairly grade the entirety of a person.

Since colleges and courses vary a lot in their emphasis on things like attendance, students should seriously consider whether or not the requirements for a particular class are likely to be a good fit. Students also should consider the fact that being critically evaluated on course requirements is a central part of what it means to be in college. If students are likely to feel suicidal or otherwise suffer serious health consequences from receiving a disappointing grade, they should postpone their education until they are ready to handle it, because professors can’t give better grades out of concern for these things. No one can expect to do everything well, and disappointing results are especially likely when people try to do too much at once. Accepting this is part of what it takes to live and work responsibly as an adult with mental illness.

One semester while teaching I was suffering from an extraordinarily severe depressive episode in which I couldn’t sleep or make even trivial decisions. I was frequently late for class, and once even missed class because after several days of insomnia I had fallen unconscious on my way to the campus. Though I tried my absolute hardest, I sometimes couldn’t get my class materials prepared on time and it took me quite a while to grade students’ papers. In their course evaluations, my students tore me apart for my disorganization, lateness/absences, the ways in which my ability as a lecturer was impeded by discomfort being in my own skin. In other words I was judged not for who I am as a whole, or the potential for greatness that my illness had prevented me from showing; I was judged simply on the merits of what I produced at the times I was supposed to produce them. Students don’t say “Hey, professor, you didn’t sleep? How about you rest and we’ll all come back for the lecture later.” They just give you a “poor” rating as a professor — and this is how most of the world works. I try not to blame myself for these poor ratings because I did the best I could under the circumstances. And I don’t blame my students, because they evaluated my performance by the appropriate criteria. Illness can make even the best student’s or worker’s performance suffer. This isn’t because of stigma, but because of the illness itself, and it is incredibly sad.

It is human to want to channel feelings of powerless despair into indignation, and we have to feel for how much despair these authors have been through. Nevertheless, I disagree with them, and not because I need any mandated faculty training to understand mental illness! I’m not even sure that these two essays are really about mental illness. To me, these essays are largely about looking for someone to blame for the fact that we can’t always do everything well — even when we have lots of potential and are trying as hard as we can. Unfortunately, I don’t think these expressions of misplaced outrage are likely to be helpful for improving the lives of people with mental illness. Isn’t it dangerous to imply that people with mental illness are too fragile or too incapable to be held to and evaluated on performance standards? Isn’t it unreasonable to accuse professors of being stigmatizing or discriminatory if they lack warm/fuzzy therapist qualities or sometimes have to be the bearers of bad news about students’ performance? Aren’t efforts to address real issues related to mental illness stigma and discrimination potentially damaged by overly-inclusive applications of these concepts?

When you don’t get the grade you want, this doesn’t mean that you are destined for failure in life; it also doesn’t mean that your professor lacks understanding of your suffering or appreciation for your strengths.  Professors can only grade performance on specific class assignments by specific deadlines, based on requirements explained in painstaking detail on the syllabus, grading rubrics, and so on. Professors cannot and should not attempt to grade a student’s worth or potential as a whole person and I think it would be a mistake for any of us to give anyone that kind of authority. We are all more than the sum of our grades and evaluations.


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