How To Talk To Your Professors About Your Mental Illness

By: Stephanie Kirby

Updated May 05, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Judson Haynes

Talking about mental illness is not always easy, but it is important that your professors and support system are aware of what you may be dealing with. To help you figure out how to talk to your professors about mental illness, it can help to discuss this with a therapist first, they can help you figure out the best way to go about it. Therapy can also help you address any hardships that come with mental illness and improve your overall wellbeing.

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For students struggling to keep up in class settings, academic pressure can contribute to mental health difficulties. Deadlines, strict attendance policies, and expectations of high grades are just a few reasons that nearly a third of college students report that stress negatively affects their academic performance. Moreover, stigma surrounding mental illness often causes students to attempt to cope with these struggles in silence, even when mental healthcare is available.

If you are a student dealing with too many stressors, you are not alone. Whether you have a diagnosed mental disorder or think you may simply be overwhelmed during a difficult semester, you have a right to be heard, and you deserve care and support to help you make it through. Talking to your professors about your mental illness may feel embarrassing, frightening, or even impossible, but this article will take you through reasonable strategies and tips for addressing your difficulties with your professors.

Benefits of Speaking Up

Whether you are a student with a chronic mental illness or are just struggling to maintain your overall mental and emotional health, your symptoms can have an enormous impact on how you thrive in a class setting. If particular components of a class are typically strenuous for you, such as public speaking, complicated assignments, or short deadlines, then speaking up is important not just for your grade in the class, but for your wellbeing. Speaking with your professors about what you are experiencing and how it impacts your academic performance has many benefits for maintaining mental wellness inside and out of the classroom:

  • Speaking with your professor about your mental illness triggers and working collaboratively to ease any burdens that may result serves as a preventive measure for your mental health. Knowing that your professor has listened and has a better understanding of your issues makes it less likely that a mental health crisis will snowball.
  • Acknowledging your mental illness builds competence. Building mastery by meeting challenges is a commonly used strategy for emotional regulation. By being brave and approaching your professor, you will have stood up for yourself and your needs. Each time you take that step forward, your courage will grow, and the next conversation may feel less intimidating.
  • Disclosing your mental health struggles promotes self-improvement and decreases self-stigma. It is easy to internalize the stigma about mental illness that you confront in society. By speaking about mental health issues openly, you empower yourself to accept your mental illness as valid.
  • By speaking up and decreasing your own self-stigma, you are likely making an easier path for the next student to approach that instructor about their mental illness. Remember, you are not alone. Take heart in knowing that your own courage could help someone else facing a similar challenge next semester.

Taking the First Step

The first step of initiating the conversation can be nerve-wracking. Remind yourself that by making this move, you are doing something valuable: you are advocating for the sake of your mental health. You can usually find your instructor's office hours on your syllabus, or you can send a simple email asking if you could make an appointment to meet with them outside of class. Professors are usually more than happy to find a time to meet because they are pleased when a student takes the initiative to speak with them.

What To Say

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Finding the words to explain your mental illness or other challenge can also be intimidating. You may fear that a professor might judge you or think that you are making excuses. Creating a script or even brief notes can be very helpful for getting your point across. In your conversation, you may find it helpful to describe how your mental illness impacts or may impact your performance in class, explain what coping skills you use, and offer constructive suggestions on what classroom accommodations can be made to fit your needs.

Here is an example of a script for a student who has bipolar disorder and suffers from panic attacks:

"I wanted to let you know that I have bipolar disorder and sometimes my symptoms can affect my performance in class. I experience panic attacks that can interfere with my ability to participate fully, and my mood swings sometimes make it harder for me to contribute to class discussions. I use a coloring book to cope with my anxiety, and it would be helpful for me to sit near the back of the classroom. I wanted to discuss this with you now to help prevent mental health crises in the future and make a plan if they do arise."

Since classes and individual professors differ in style and expectations, it is a good idea to open up the conversation for your instructor's input. They may have specific accommodations in mind or further questions or comments. Making a plan together allows for an arrangement that works for both of you.

Mental disorders and illnesses are far from rare, and your professor might surprise you. They might have made similar accommodations for a student in the past, or they might have a loved one who lives with a similar condition, or they might even have experienced struggles on their own mental health journey and be able to offer you additional guidance or support.

Conclusion

The biggest challenge of speaking about your mental health issues with your professor is taking the first step. Once you have expressed your feelings, a wave of relief and a feeling of personal accomplishment may follow. Stressful academic atmospheres can sway you to think that having good grades means sacrificing your mental health. By making a plan with the help of your instructor, though, you are making it clear that taking care of your mental illness is a priority. In terms of goals, valuing your wellbeing above academic success is a better way to pursue both.

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Tips

  1. Talking to your professor about your triggers is most effective at the beginning of the school year or semester. That way, you can proactively target potential problem areas in a class before issues arise.
  2. Visiting your university's psychological services is the first line of defense if you are struggling with a mental health problem. Psychological services are designed to help students with specific mental health problems relating to academics.
  3. Disability offices at many universities allow you to register your mental illness. This makes you eligible for relevant accommodations to help you succeed, such as extra time on exams, assignment extensions when needed and a variety of other supports. Accommodations do not impact your grades—they are designed to help you succeed.
  4. If you need to talk to a professional therapist who is trained to discuss these issues, you can check with your local college or university counseling office or reach out to a counselor through BetterHelp.

Experiencing mental illness while in college is more common than you might think. A survey of college counseling center directors found that over 40 percent of college students seeking counseling services present symptoms of anxiety disorders. As stressful and exhausting as higher education can be, help is available. If you need help talking to your professors about your mental illness, or if you have managed successful conversations with them but would like additional support, the online therapy services offered by BetterHelp might be a great fit.

Online therapy has several advantages over in-person services for students. Online therapy is convenient and confidential; because you can arrange your sessions with a therapist around your schedule and lifestyle, you can meet whenever and wherever you’d like. You can work with a therapist at BetterHelp by video chat, phone call, or text messaging without even leaving your dorm or living room couch. Additionally, online therapy is more affordable than in-person treatments, and you can access the best-match therapist for you. If you would like personalized extra support to get you through the semester and beyond, you can get started today. Here are reviews from BetterHelp student users who have worked with online therapists.

Lisa is fantastic, She approaches all of my concerns with appropriate questions and comments, I think her and I connect really well. I was concerned because I am a college girl and sometimes it can be difficult to connect with counselors because many can take things to serious or not remember the day to day struggles but Lisa completely validates my college concerns.

https://www.betterhelp.com/lisa-masri/

I couldn’t have made it to graduation and applying for grad school if it wasn’t for her!!! https://www.betterhelp.com/oshe-lewis-reese/

Citations

Corrigan, Patrick W., and Deepa Rao. "On the Self-Stigma of Mental Illness: Stages, Disclosure, and Strategies for Change." The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 57.8 (2012): n. pag. National Institute of Health. Web. 29 May 2017.

"Facts." Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. ADAA, n.d. Web. 29 May 2017.

Neacsiu, Andrada D., Marsha M. Linehan, and Martin Bohus. "Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills: An Intervention For Emotion Dysregulation." (January 2015): 491-502. ResearchGate. Web. 29 May 2015.


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