Professors are often surprisingly gracious and understanding when you tell them you’ve had to take a mental health day
Your alarm goes off, the sun rose hours ago and you’d rather die than get out of bed. It’s midday, you’ve already hit snooze for two hours straight and if you don’t get up right now, you’ll never be able to get to that seminar at one. You’ve already missed more classes this semester than you’re technically allowed to and you promised yourself last week that you’d make it next time. You miss enough lectures that the least you could do is go to the three or so hour-long seminars you have a week. You’re literally paying £9,000 a year to sleep in a different city from your hometown.
Maybe you’ve experienced a stream of consciousness similar to the one above, maybe you haven’t. But if you suffer from a mental health problem, I’ll hazard a guess that at some point during your university career, you’ve skipped out on class when you really, really shouldn’t have. I’ve probably skipped more classes since starting university than ten people combined – having bipolar disorder is like an atomic bomb on attendance for me.
I’m not the only one, either – for a Russell Group university, an awful lot of my friends have awful attendance. From depression to insomnia to anxiety disorders that keep them up all night and asleep all day, many of the people I’m closest with in Glasgow struggle to go to class because of their mental health. Like me, they have good days and bad days, not-too-bad weeks and pretty-fucking-awful weeks; and, sometimes, we can find ourselves knocked out of function for an entire month. There’s being tired, and then there’s “you could tell me that the world will end if I don’t get out of bed and turn on my light but I still couldn’t do it.”
Still, it doesn’t stop the gnawing guilt when you remember that you’re paying thousands of pounds to get a degree because you want a future that actually lives up to the potential you’re worried you’ll squander because of an illness you can’t help.
But what I know now that I didn’t in my first year – and only begun to understand in my second year and mostly accept in my third – is that it’s okay to take a brain day. Or week. Or month, if you really need it.
Something that struck me since reaching honours – and something that I want to make very clear to anyone reading this – is that many professors are surprisingly but overwhelmingly gracious and understanding if you let them know that you’re struggling and why. In my first year I had a million doctor appointments, sickness bugs and even funerals (yes, I really did use that excuse) I had to deal with. I felt too embarrassed to email my tutor and tell them that I missed their class three times in a row because I was too depressed to get out of bed – just thinking about the kind of reply I’d get if I sent that made me want to drop out.
But when I finally did send that brutally honest email, I also finally brought myself to register with Disability Services, who in turn made sure that from then on, every tutor I get will receive an email at the beginning of term informing them that due to my health, I require flexibility with attendance. The first time I told a tutor that I missed their class because of my mental illness, they didn’t tell me that I’d have to do better or send the clipped, passive-aggressive reply that I dreaded. Instead, they told me that it was okay, that it sucks I have to deal with this, and that if there’s anything they can do to help, they will.
It wasn’t a lucky fluke; literally every tutor since has responded with a similar message when I’ve had to miss a class. Some have even gone so far as to check on my wellbeing weeks after I stopped being their student, and others have offered to help me catch up over coffee or do a presentation that I’d missed on a different week.
Ironically, I feel a lot more at ease when I have to miss a class now that my grades actually count towards my degree than I did when I was in first year. There was one instance when a professor took an attitude when I missed one of his classes, so I took an attitude right back, switched tutors and everything after that was fine.
It’s more than okay to take a day or week to cope with your mental health – health should always come first. Until society does the desperate catching up it needs to with mental health; it’s okay to take a brain day, it sucks that we have to deal with this, and if there’s anything our professors can do, they’ll probably help. And if they don’t? The sun will still rise the next day (whether we want it to or not) and in the grand scheme of our degrees, missing one day will barely make a dent.