Acknowledging mental health | The Triangle

Acknowledging mental health

Flickr: CollegeDegrees360
Flickr: CollegeDegrees360

Last week, I was supposed to give a presentation in class. However, that same week I was very sick and could barely speak, my throat in constant pain. I emailed my professor and she was sympathetic, immediately telling me that, of course it was fine if I postponed my presentation until a later date.

In college, this isn’t a rare thing.

Professors are used to granting excused absences and deadline extensions for sick students.

But what if, that day, I’d been feeling particularly anxious? What if my mental illness had made it so that I was unable to concentrate and exhausted from trying to keep up with my own thoughts?

Even though I have a medical diagnosis and a prescription for this, chances are I wouldn’t have even thought to mention my anxiety to my professor. And if I had, most professors would probably just brush it off and say I was overreacting, or just having stage fright about giving the presentation.

This isn’t fair. Something needs to change in our education system to amend what’s considered a valid excuse for missing class.

In our society, mental illnesses are often presented as rare conditions that only affect a small number of people, but in fact, they are a significant problem on college campuses all over the country.

More than 11 percent of college students in the U.S. have been diagnosed with anxiety, and more than 10 percent with depression. And this doesn’t even take into account the many cases that, for whatever reason, go undiagnosed — it’s estimated that one in five college-aged individuals struggle with mental illness.

This is staggeringly high compared to the one in fifty people who break a bone each year. Why is breaking a bone considered a valid reason for missing class, and a particularly bad mental health day not?

Mental illnesses, whether or not they are professionally diagnosed, affect people’s everyday functions just as much as physical illnesses do. Many mental health symptoms actually manifest physiologically — as insomnia, shortness of breath, changed heart rate, decreased movement and changes in weight.

Moreover, mental illnesses primarily affect the brain, usually with a chemical imbalance in its neurotransmitters. As the brain is the organ most essential to studying and doing work in college, surely illnesses such as these should be taken more seriously than a broken leg — which may stop you from walking to class, but doesn’t actually impede your ability to write an essay.

The biggest problem is that awareness of mental health issues has only become an issue recently. When most of our professors were in college, mental health was barely even discussed — which means they may not know the extent to which it affects students.

The only solution is to somehow educate professors on the serious, debilitating effects that mental illnesses have, and the negative impact they have on a person’s work if they are not given enough support.

That way, educators will be more sympathetic to students’ needs — and knowing that we have the support of our professors will reduce our stress levels, too.

Of course, students should not rely on this excuse to get out of homework completely, or fake an illness they don’t have. But personally, I would like to live in a world where a student can approach a teacher at this time of year and say that the changing seasons have been seriously affecting her mood and making it a struggle to finish a paper, and the professor would sympathize and allow another week to finish.