Submission: Professors must work to understand, help students with mental illness
By Daily Bruin Staff
Dec. 7, 2015 2:03 p.m.
Dear My Best Friend’s Professor,
I wanted to start off by letting you know that I think you are amazing. I don’t know the extent of what you do here at UCLA, but I do know that in order to have reached your esteemed position at this university, you have done incredible research and have played a huge part in shaping the minds of tomorrow. For these things, I thank you.
I’m writing to you because I didn’t feel I could adequately express my concerns on the quarterly evaluation form. As you know, your student (my best friend) has been in treatment for her mental health-related difficulties. And as you are well aware, this has taken a toll on her class performance.
My best friend was diagnosed with anorexia this quarter. Her condition steadily worsened to the point that her resting heart rate was measured at 42 beats per minute when it should have been around 60-100. Anorexia was killing her. She should have been hospitalized on the spot.
Through steady support and love, I pushed her to pursue an intensive partial hospitalization treatment program. I wanted to talk to you about what this looks like practically, because, as indicated by your responses to her, I am led to believe you don’t fully know what treatment for her mental illness looks like.
My best friend’s treatment is three days a week, from 8:15 in the morning to 3:15 in the afternoon, and for those seven hours she is asked to confront her greatest fears. She is asked to consume food, something her anorexia screams at her for doing. She is asked to gain back weight that her anorexia stole from her, convincing her of the lie that without the weight maybe she could someday be worthy of love. She is asked to engage fully in the program – mentally, physically and emotionally – when all she wants to do is run out the door and never look back.
When you told her to work harder, she heard you say she wasn’t good enough. When you asked her to drop your class, she heard you say she was a failure. When you brought in her department counselor to convince her again to drop your class, she heard you say she doesn’t deserve to be at UCLA at all. I encourage you to consider that maybe being enrolled in your class is the only thing in her life that makes her feel normal.
Professor, you aren’t the only educator at this school that has said things like this to students struggling with mental illness. I’ve had friends that, in the midst of anxiety attacks, have been told by their professors to sit back down and finish their tests. I’ve heard professors mock mental illness, misuse the words “depressed,” “bipolar” and “psychotic,” and, without realizing it, promote stigma and isolate students with mental health difficulties.
I don’t believe any of these professors intended to hurt their students. I believe these reactions and statements speak more to the culture of stigma than they do of the professors themselves. That being said, even though these professors may not have intended harm, the reality is, they have harmed. I challenge you and your fellow educators not to make a student’s mental health difficulties THEIR problem, but instead to recognize that cultural stigma surrounding mental illness is OUR problem, and it is vital that we take steps to change this paradigm. As a professor, you are in the unique position to do this, starting with the way you treat students like my best friend.
Professor, my best friend is smart, driven and capable. Every single day she walks into the hospital, she has to put aside her anxieties and trust in the hope that this grueling treatment program will afford her some freedom from this debilitating affliction. I urge you to consider that this is not just about her class performance, this is about her life and value as a human being. I ask that instead of pouring your energy into kicking her out of the class, pour it into supporting her in the best way you can by offering extensions to her when things get particularly hard, checking in on her feelings and just understanding that she is a human being before she is a student.
Help me celebrate her for fighting this illness. Help me celebrate her for fighting for her education despite this struggle. Help me celebrate the fact that she is still here with us. The way you and I respond to her in this critical time affects the way she will continue to seek treatment for the rest of her life. I urge you to understand and take this responsibility seriously, because it truly is a matter of life and death for her and for so many students.
Your Student’s Best Friend
Virzi is a fourth-year English student and a member of the Active Minds committee in the undergraduate student government Student Wellness Commission.