“I can’t help you if you don’t tell me what you need.”
That’s a sentence I heard all too often from professors as I struggled for the past three years to keep my head above water in my classes and, quite frankly, to keep myself alive through numerous depressive episodes. I get it. I need to be my own advocate, and I need to give professors something to work with. But during the pandemic, a flexibility and preparedness to accommodate students emerged that was somewhat frustrating in contrast to my past experiences.
This semester, with the right combination of therapy and drugs, I got myself back into a healthier mental state after years of struggling to maintain my mental health. I was ready to finally experience Vanderbilt at my best. And then, the world came crashing down.
My positive experience with professors’ increased support during the pandemic was not the case for all students, but my professors handled the change incredibly well. My communications professor stood out among the chaos, answering my late-night emails, rolling out a no-questions-asked extensions policy and developing alternative assignments for students who couldn’t Zoom in. Across the board, offers of accommodations and reassurances that professors were there for us flooded my inbox.
Finally, professors made it clear that our well-being was a priority. Finally, when I couldn’t get out of bed, I could still attend class. Finally, professors were giving suggestions of accommodations they were willing to give instead of leaving it up to my depression-impaired problem-solving skills to propose my own solutions. Finally, professors didn’t think they needed to know the intimate details of my mental illness to feel that I deserved an extension or an extra absence. Finally, I truly felt supported.
I don’t say this to mean that my past professors were not wonderfully caring and supportive. They were. However, the level of accommodation available to students struggling during this pandemic should have always been just as apparent and readily available to mentally ill students as it is now. More people are experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression during the pandemic, which has likely encouraged more professors to reach out to offer support. But in a non-pandemic world, professors’ proactive support and flexibility are just as necessary.
The open channels of communication, alternative learning methods and due date flexibility employed during distance learning, with minimal invasive questioning, should outlast the pandemic and become the new norm.
My professors have always supported me, and I am so grateful for that. I just hope that when we return to campus, the extra support and accommodations that emerged during COVID-19 are still so readily available and easily obtained by students who continue to struggle with their mental health.