I'm Not Coming to Class, sincerely Mental Illness
Over the years, I have heard every type of excuse when it comes to students missing classes. This time frame includes face-to-face teaching; you know, in the before times/pre-COVID, when you felt safe enough to be indoors, with nothing but a bottle of hand sanitizer and the hope that your students would cover their mouths before sneezing.
I've heard everything from being arrested, being shot, and quite frankly, just plain old not wanting to come to class because they were "feeling lazy." However, I must admit that the last one I respect a little more, considering that it's seasoned with just the right amount of honesty. Heaven knows that I have caught them in some lies that would make traditional and nontraditional versions of a higher power blush.
But once in a while, I get one excuse that hits me right smack in the middle of my hippocampus, amygdala, and dorsomedial thymus, otherwise known as the cluster fuck cerebral trinity of most cases of depression. There is so much that gets lost between those three parts of our brain that sometimes we aren't even aware that they have been stolen from us by some cruel tag team-up of nature, nurture, and, let's not forget, denial. And that includes reaching certain educational and academic milestones.
This brings me back to the few times I have opened my inbox and saw my problems staring right back at me. You guessed it, students admitting the reason they didn't show up was due to their various mental health conditions or just recently being diagnosed with one and, of course, my dear old friend with absolutely no benefits, depression has graced that list.
There are so many things I want to tell them. However, this is a very litigious society in which we currently live. I do not want to be one of those teachers who suddenly find themselves out of a job because of crossing some vaguely defined line, constantly being pushed forward and moved back because of #cancel culture. Many professors have lost their jobs for expressing their opinions, and students, along with the electrical shit storm known as The Internet, see it as an act of micro-aggression. When I was in graduate school, they made it very clear to all the incoming GTAs that the students were walking, talking lawsuits in the making. There were horror stories of teaching assistants that tried just a little too hard to help a student. Then it backfired into a long succession of angry phone calls from parents still hovering in a helicopter holding pattern above their children's lives at the ages of 18 and up.
I want to tell them that they're going to be days when absolutely no one will understand what's going on inside their heads, and this includes loved ones, and that can be unimaginably upsetting. I want to tell them that no one treatment, in particular, can make it permanently just all go away.
They will have to become plucky alchemists trying to balance and create something new out of various medications, experimental therapies, and of course, good old-fashioned talk therapy. Not to mention all the dietary recommendations, spiritual meditations, and exercise regimens that well-meaning friends, coworkers, and busybodies, in general, will recommend.
I want to tell them that they're going to be professors, bosses, and even family members who will ask them to suck it up and not see it as a legitimate problem. I want to warn them about the dangers of self-termination associated with different mental illnesses. I want to tattoo the suicide hotline onto their very weary and wary little souls.
Perhaps, the most important thing I want to tell them is there's only so long you can pretend to be fine until you're not, then it will become impossible to fake your way back to normalcy. There are only so many times you can mimic laughter, attention, and essential human functions associated with what is now aptly named "adulting."
But, I cannot do these things because I need money to live, and I need my job. The best thing that I can do for them is to point out all the services our campus has regarding mental health and give them all the details they need to locate or contact them. Sometimes I feel like a coward because I can't speak to them on how this makes me feel and how it will make them feel, and how all those feelings could spiral out of control if not handled properly and promptly. Also, I want to warn them that there are going to be days when you're not going to want to get out of bed, and sometimes you need to curl up into a ball and cut yourself some slack and repeat, "I'm doing the best that I can. I'm doing the best that I can."