This column is in response to an “Ask a Psych Major” submission:
How can we talk to professors about mental health when we’re struggling? A lot of older professors don’t seem to care/understand.
First, thank you for reaching out—this is a great question!
When talking to professors, it is important to remember to be direct when asking for things we need—whether it be an extension or just letting our professors know what is going on in our lives. After all, professors are not mind-readers and they may teach hundreds of students, so they cannot know if you are struggling unless you tell them firmly and directly. Along with directness, you should be specific: layout exactly what is going on, how it is affecting you and what it is your professor can do, as well as how the accommodations for which you’re asking will benefit you. In composing your email, get to the point quickly. Professors are very busy and receive numerous emails throughout the day, so the fewer words it takes for you to explain what you need, the better.
Be prepared for your professors to say no, to be short or to be off-putting. Professors cannot accommodate every student who asks for an extension just because they forgot to do the assignment. However, you are an exception, and this is why being direct about what is happening in your life is paramount; you need the professor to understand that you did not simply “forget to do an assignment,” but rather, you have an extenuating circumstance that is out of your control and is hindering your success in their class.
An initial “no” is not the end of the conversation. Some professors have “seen it all” and could be jaded and therefore they may assume that you are just making excuses. So, ask to speak to the professor “in-person” (or over Zoom during the pandemic). That way, the professor can put a face to a name which will build a rapport and a relationship (usually when people can see you, they are more willing to compromise) and you can ensure that the professor hears everything you are saying and really listens to you.
Meeting with the professor can give you some control over the situation by ensuring that the professor hears you and understands that you have a valid, real reason for needing help—you are not making excuses or “slacking off.”
In-person conversations with your professor are also beneficial because they demonstrate to your professor that you are willing to put in the work to be successful and are not simply expecting the professor to “hand you” a solution so to speak. Remember, a professor may have 15 reasons for denying your request that they simply do not put into an email, but they may tell you in a face-to-face conversation.Therefore, an in-person meeting allows you to discuss these reasons and affords you a greater opportunity to reach a compromise.
Furthermore, when your professor responds, language is important. Remember to reflect your professors point-of-view in your responses. This shows that you’ve not only listened to what your professor has said, but you’ve thought about it. For example, a response like “I understand you cannot make an exception for every student, and it must be frustrating to be asked. However, my circumstances are different because…and this extension will help me manage my mental health in the following ways:…” demonstrates your understanding of what the professor has said, while also remaining firm with your need for extra help. This legitimizes your circumstances which will hopefully help you get through to any jaded professor.
In the event that a professor is still unwilling to accommodate your situation, remember that you are not alone. There are a whole host of resources available to students to help them succeed.
First, schedule a meeting with your navigator. If you do not know who your navigator is and how to contact them, this information can be found on your SIS page under “Advisors.” Tell your navigator about your situation, what you’re going through and how any communication has gone with the professor. Finally, tell your navigator that after all of your efforts to reach a compromise, the professor remains unwilling to accommodate, even though your mental health struggles are very legitimate. Your navigator can then speak with the professor directly and also contact the dean of the school if the professor continues to refuse to help. Be sure to discuss your plans with your navigator and ask about other ways they may be able to support you.
Do keep in mind that you can contact your navigator first before contacting your professor for help coordinating with your professor—especially if you feel your professor will be unaccommodating or if having that conversation may worsen your mental health.
Finally, it can also be helpful to try counseling. Consider scheduling an appointment with University Counseling Services through “MyHealthConnect.” You can also visit Psychology Today, which is an online directory of licensed therapists, psychiatrists, treatment centers and support groups in your area who may be able to help you. Additionally, you can call 216-368-5872 to reach the counselor on-call—and they are readily available for any situations. All of these resources exist for the sole purpose of helping students like you succeed, so do not be afraid to use them to their fullest extent.
Keep on keeping on, you got this!