About time “off”

“If you were sick with cancer, you would have stopped trying to work months ago.”  That’s what the administration at my current job told me when I had hesitated to go on medical leave for depression that was seriously interfering with the quality of my work, and they were absolutely right. Taking a temporary leave was what I needed to do to get my health (and later, my career) back on track and I really regret not having done it sooner.

This wasn’t my first time taking a leave; I had required them before as a student. Yet each time it was a prolonged struggle for me to realize that a leave was the most responsible choice that a conscientious employee/student like myself could make.

Mental illness is invisible and difficult to quantify. Its severity and urgency may elude even our doctors, the people who know us well, and ourselves. Many mental illnesses involve a gradual progression that makes it difficult to recognize when you’ve become seriously sick. Moreover, with many of these illnesses, an inability to recognize its severity is a central symptom of the illness itself. Finally, we tend to use the same constructs to understand minor psychological disturbances as we do severe (even life-threatening) ones. So, the same way we have trouble getting our annoyingly well-intentioned friends to understand that healthier foods or yoga or whatever cannot solve our problems the way it solved theirs, we have trouble getting ourselves to understand when our illness has progressed beyond the reach of our usual coping strategies, strength, and determination.

Some employees and students don’t have any options to take time “off” or otherwise reduce their workload. But many more of us refuse to consider these options even when they would be possible and useful. During the long years that I often didn’t get to class, felt little interest in anything, and really couldn’t make learning a priority, being in college was a terrible waste of money and credits. Yet I didn’t take a leave until I was required to. With college being so costly, why don’t more of us postpone school when we’re not ready to get an education?

For me, living arrangements were one major obstacle. While moving back in with my parents would have been both miserable and bad for my health, living on my own would have been too dangerous, and I didn’t have any other support system. Many young adults find themselves in this situation and could really benefit from affordable shared housing options with community-established rules and someone on call for emergencies.

But beyond the problem of where to live, there is a problem with how students and their parents think about the idea of pursuing college a little later or a little more slowly. There are many mature and financially sound reasons to delay getting a college degree if we would all just stop confusing this smart plan with things like dropping out and going nowhere.

Data show that the majority of U.S. college students pursuing a bachelor’s degree full-time take longer than 4 years to finish it. So why do people persist in judging themselves and each other against the 4-year ideal? This is just one of many ways in which unrealistic marketing for the “college experience” is completely out of control. I think it makes a lot of sense to de-stigmatize alternative timelines for completing college and we could begin by eliminating the frequent use of designations based on class year (e.g., sophomore, second year). Wouldn’t it be refreshing if students could take a leave due to mental health problems — or other compelling circumstances —  without having to field questions about their college timeline with every person they meet until graduation?

On top of the other reasons why it is difficult for people with mental illness to realize when they should take a leave, young people typically have difficulty seeing beyond the life they currently know. Young adults with mental illness may really feel like they absolutely have to stay in college now even when doing so is putting their health in danger and accomplishing very little; it will usually fall on other adults in their lives to take the longer, more realistic view. We should all begin by addressing whatever stigma we may have internalized about taking time “off” so that we can help others feel better about making that choice when illness and/or youth is preventing them from seeing the big picture.

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