Photo credit: the apostrophe via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Never Tell Your Teachers

You might think that telling a professor that you’re mentally ill is no big deal. If so, you’re mistaken.

A year ago, I was told that people who have mental illnesses like PTSD should tell their university advisers that they are mentally ill, instead of expecting the university to use trigger warnings or to grant them some level of anonymity when it comes to their diagnosis. Telling a teacher may sound like a lovely idea if you’ve never actually been the student telling the adviser that you’re mentally ill — and it might be fine with some advisers, but it isn’t with all. Advocates will tell you this, and while I love advocating for ending stigma of the mentally ill, my advice to avoid telling a teacher is one that comes from personal experience.

I wanted to be a therapist and I knew that helping people was something that I loved doing. Majoring in social work was kind of a given for me, and it didn’t surprise friends or family members that that was my chosen field. I decided on being a therapist after growing up with two mentally ill parents and with my own mental health struggles. When I went through my orientation, I didn’t think anything of telling my adviser that I had bipolar disorder. When I wrote my official application to the program, where I had to detail my plans for using my B.S.W. degree once I graduated, I mentioned that I would go to graduate school and pursue an M.S.W., then become an L.C.S.W. I explained that my desire was driven by my personal and family history. I thought I was safe. Social work professors should be the last educators that would ever misuse information like that to discriminate against a student. They’re the last ones who you should expect to manipulate or violate the rights of a student. These are the people who are proud of the moniker “Social Justice Warrior” — in its non-internet-troll-infused definition.

Three years after joining the program, the adviser that I trusted so much and another professor in the program ejected me from the program because of my diagnosis. I’m not assuming this or making it up to deny some failings on my part. The professors actually explained to me their reason for kicking me out and I was so shocked that I couldn’t process what had happened. A friend of mine could, and she advised me to call a group that advocates on behalf of disabled people within my state. I tried to pursue the complaint at first, but eventually felt overwhelmed by it and like it was somehow my fault. It didn’t help that many people I know actually suggested that the actions of the professors was okay; they thought that mentally ill people just couldn’t be trusted. They told me it was okay over and over.

It was not okay.

It will never be okay.

What happened that autumn afternoon was wrong. When they told me that my mental illness meant I should get a job as far away from other people as possible — for the safety & emotional well-being of the other people — that was wrong. Things that had preceded it — one of the two professors regularly mocking me in classes that I had with her, the same professor told me that I could come back to the program after I was told I “needed” to take a semester off, and both of these professors convincing me that it was totally normal for them to come to an appointment with my psychiatrist & listen as I detailed being severely depressed weeks before — they were all wrong.

I felt so stupid for falling for their lies and manipulation.

I was a good student. I had two classes left to finish when I was kicked out — one was an internship and the other was a seminar for the internship. I was going to graduate with honors. I had already submitted my paperwork and done my G.R.E. so that I could get into graduate school. Everything was on track, but my life got derailed because I thought that I could trust a professor with my mental health status.

I tried transferring to a different school, a task that was next to impossible because of the debt incurred over that semester I’d taken off. It became more difficult when I found out just halfway through my first semester at my new college that I might have Sjögren’s syndrome and that I definitely did have Joint Hypermobility Syndrome/Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Type III. I took another semester off to try to get my health back on track and ended up never going back.

The intolerance I faced is part of the stigma that still exists against mentally ill people. It was pretty straight-forward ableism. And they got away with it, not because of my failings, but because of a system that only gives people who are discriminated against two years to file a complaint. They got away with it because I didn’t know if I could prove that what actually happened happened. I hadn’t been documenting the exact dates when things would happen. The only thing that I knew there was a full record of was the psychiatrist appointment. Civil cases are a lot more involved than criminal cases. I didn’t know that advocates for the disabled existed until after all of this happened, but it was too late. And I don’t want anyone else to go through this sort of thing.

American colleges and universities have offices where you can discuss the needs you have for your education. You can tell them about the diseases or conditions that you have. It’s scary to do so, but it is so worth it. Please seek out and use any resource that exists to help you navigate this world with a disability. Keep copies of your school’s disability office’s policies. Keep copies of paperwork that you submit to them. And please report any school personnel that violates your rights to the school’s disability office and to the Department of Education. I know it’s hard and scary, but it’s also something that could help make your college studies less stressful and more productive.

You shouldn’t have to be afraid of your professors. You shouldn’t have to suspect that they would be capable of breaking the law. Unfortunately, teachers aren’t perfect and some aren’t ethical. Protecting your emotional well-being and your educational career has to take precedence over trusting your educators.