Here's Why Professors Should Accommodate Students With Mental & Physical Health Issues

I always prided myself on my ability to separate my mental and physical health from my education and work. In sixth grade, I was only one absence away from perfect attendance, and I cried and begged the nurse not to let it count—only to face her stubborn assurance that I had symptoms of the stomach flu and needed to go home.

After my mom passed away, I threw myself into working hard to fill the silence. I became something of a young workaholic, pushing myself to get straight A’s. Every minute that wasn’t spent studying or doing homework was spent on other educational activities—reading National Geographic and The New York Times, learning Photoshop and web design, taking art and writing classes at the library. Even after her death, I didn’t miss a single day of class because I was sad. (She passed in August, so I wasn’t in school for the funeral.)

Halfway through college, everything changed. I was dealing with symptoms of PTSD from an on-campus rape. As hard as I tried, there were days when I woke, filled with anxiety after a series of particularly bad nightmares. There were days when a rape joke in class would send my heart racing.

I could only imagine how those with lifelong mental illness felt. I’m lucky in that the symptoms of my PTSD are fairly easy to track. It’s been four years since the assault, and I know almost all of my triggers now, as well as what to do to calm down if something does happen. At the time, I felt like a failure. I liked to think of myself as impenetrably strong—someone who didn’t need to take a day off for my mental health.

I was wrong. There’s nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to putting your mental health first.

This piece by my former professor, Catherine Savini, brings up not only why it’s important for students to take care of their mental health, but why staff and faculty should facilitate this.

Savini brings up a variety of situations where professors can be lenient on mental health. In fact, one of the example she brings up—a chronically late student—is something I’ve personally witnessed. One of my close friends in graduate school has ADD, which she is managing. But it makes it very difficult for her to be on time to class. She’s rarely more than five or ten minutes late. Our professor was very accommodating to her, after she explained that she has ADD and often gets caught up working on classwork right before she has to commute to class on the train.

How does that teach students how to be adults and act in the “real world”? Like Savini says, there are many situations in real life, in working professional life, where it’s acceptable to make accommodations. As someone with a full-time career, I can’t count how often we need to reschedule meetings because someone can’t make it. There are times when things can’t—or at least, really shouldn’t—be rescheduled, and we all need to learn to prioritize and delegate, and say no when we have to. But the real world can and should be flexible, and that means that professors should not only foster flexibility, but a culture where students feel encouraged to speak up if they need that flexibility.

That flexibility makes it easier for everyone, not just students with mental illness. It makes it easier for students with disabilities and chronic illnesses, and it fosters an environment where even temporary illness, mental health issues or family emergencies are treated with care. Even for people that don’t have ongoing, chronic issues, an open and flexible environment comes in handy when something unexpected arises—and it can, for everyone.

Say a student is already in college and goes through some sort of trauma, like a rape or sexual assault, a diagnosis of chronic illness or the death of a loved one. They might suddenly find themselves in a situation where they need accommodations and flexibility that they didn’t before. This is where professors come in. Rather than forcing students to drum up extensive “proof” of whatever’s going on—whether it’s ADD, a family emergency or a rape—they can remain empathetic and trust students not to take advantage.

As a disabled adult, I know how hard accommodations are to come by. Often, the amount of documentation required is ridiculous. My college roommate, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, needed to bring in documentation that she was “still in a wheelchair” every year to qualify for disabled student housing.

The truth is, some students may take advantage of a professor’s lenient policies. That’s inevitable. It’s the same way that some employees might take advantage of a workplace’s “unlimited sick day” policy. But like workplaces, professors can police this by asking questions when a student seems like they’re not in class more often than they are in it. And for those of us who occasionally, or often, need accommodations, it takes the pressure off when we know we don’t have to prove over and over again why we need them. Just this month, I needed priority boarding for a flight because of a physical disability. I asked for it, and I wasn’t peppered with questions. I was given the paper I needed to board early. The entire time beforehand, I was nervous because I didn’t know whether or not I’d have to extensively “state my case” and prove myself, the way people who need accommodations so often do.

I had Catherine Savini as a professor, and she was my supervisor in the campus Reading and Writing Center for two years. While I was a college student, there were at least a dozen times when I worried a professor would punish me as a result of my disability or my PTSD, but I never once worried about that with Savini. And we need to see a day when that’s the norm—not the exception.