Author: Courtney Casal
I’ve found the stigma to be true, at least in my experience: having a conversation about your mental illness with your professors, much less anyone, is incredibly daunting. No matter how confident you might feel, you are immediately fearful of what they might think of you. Teachers and professors are authority figures, after all. You worry that sharing your diagnosis will cloud their judgment of you, or worse, that they will undermine you, undervalue you, and treat you as something fragile and easily breakable.
There is undeniable veracity to the idea that you are, in fact, at a detriment, trying to manage a mental illness that is crippling–but I believe that you ultimately hope to be understood, rather than written-off, and that the focus will shift to all the wonderful things you can do, rather than those that you maybe can’t.
When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the fall of 2019, I was enrolled in a global economics class, a core requirement in my MBA program. After years of misdiagnoses and failed attempts at symptom control, I finally had a name to give to the disorienting highs and lows that plagued my life, episodes that were always peppered with some form of psychosis. My psychiatrist assured me that a diagnosis is a promising first step, but acknowledged that the road ahead would be long and often crooked.
I tried to convince myself that I could do it all: continue working full-time, attending school part-time, all while navigating a path to recovery, for a mental illness I was only just coming to grips with. I can’t tell you exactly what changed, but I remember sitting up late with my husband one night, and recognizing that I simply could not do it all, much less do any of those one things even remotely well at this singular moment. For the first time, my own health and well-being became the priority, after years of giving everyone and everything my very best–except myself.
When I emailed my professor, I thought, “He doesn’t need to know exactly what’s going on with you, or any specifics. Just tell him you need to drop the class.” As I typed out that terse email, I hit backspace just as quickly. I owed it to myself to be honest. In the same way it had been given to me, I gave him the name of my mental illness, and withdrew from his course. He thanked me for reaching out, he thanked me for my transparency, and most of all, he sent me well-wishes for the personal journey ahead of me. The lingering anxiety that I felt waiting for his reply was gone in an instant.
It takes bravery to be vulnerable, and it takes bravery to admit you are vulnerable. Remember that, by the very nature of what they do, teachers, educators, and administrators act in service of holistic learning for their students. Don’t be surprised if they meet your fear with unquestioning support and encouragement. Ask for what you need, and help when you need it. Present your mental illness in all of its truth–or don’t. Being scared is okay, but don’t let it paralyze you into silence. Do whatever feels best for you. Unlike on your tests and your homework, there is no right or wrong answer here.