Halloran: Extensions are invaluable for mental health


Sara Halloran, Columnist

Lately the movement toward mental health awareness has taken hold in universities, which has led to some very encouraging changes. Every professor I’ve had here at Northwestern has included a section on their syllabus informing students that they are glad to cooperate with and assist any student with an officially-diagnosed disability. Yet some of these same professors turn around and refuse to accept late homework or only grant extensions in extraordinary circumstances. They fail to recognize that mental illness, which can be as debilitating as any physical disability, does not always come in low-maintenance, institutionally-approved packages. Making extensions more easily accessible and allowing late homework are the most cursory of gestures toward students with mental illnesses. Yet some professors believe these practices somehow coddle college students.

Even if they don’t carry an official psychiatrist’s note, students with mental illnesses are valid and deserve to be treated as such by their professors. People with mental illnesses may not pursue an official diagnosis for a variety of reasons. Despite recent progress, there is still enormous stigma surrounding mental illness. Diagnosis is an official acceptance of that stigma, one that is forever on the record. This is understandably intimidating.

Others may come from socio-economic backgrounds that make seeking psychiatric help a prohibitive cost, or hail from environments where mental illness is perceived as weakness rather than a legitimate issue. Many people with mental illnesses distrust or fear therapists. Finally, some may not even realize they have a mental illness, or think their issues are too minor to be valid. They may see themselves as too “normal” to be mentally ill. This last reason is especially problematic at places like NU, where virtually everyone is an overachiever. Yet the unfortunate truth is that even students who continually achieve at a high level can suffer from mental illness, even if their high-functioning nature may hide it. In fact, the immense pressure these people put themselves under can leave them especially susceptible to conditions like depression and anxiety. A simple explanation of a mental illness or set of symptoms to a professor should, ideally, suffice as a disclosure of a condition.

To some degree, I understand professors’ reluctance to grant extensions or allow late homework. Meeting deadlines is an important skill to develop while in school, and it can become difficult to differentiate between students with legitimate issues and those who simply seek to take advantage. However, I can guarantee you that any student who did well enough in high school to get into NU is already well-practiced at making deadlines. In fact, many students are so steeped in this high-stress academic culture that they might perceive asking for an extension as an admission of failure. An “extension culture” would thus help alleviate pressure even on students without mental illnesses.

As someone with an anxiety disorder, I can tell you that my condition has a knack for striking at the most inopportune, high-stress times — in the middle of a midterm, or at 1 a.m. when I’m halfway through an essay. As hard as I may try, it can be impossible to collect myself in time to meet the deadline, or finish the test in time. The worst-case scenario of making extensions acceptable is someone dishonestly securing an extra day or two to finish his or her essay, which is of relatively small consequence.

The best case involves a student, someone who may not feel comfortable telling his professor he had a panic attack last night, getting enough time to produce an essay of which he can be proud. Professors certainly aren’t obligated to give extensions regularly, or even at all. However, accepting “I had a breakdown” or even “I’d rather not say” as an excuse for an extension or a late assignment would go a long way in making students with mental illnesses feel welcome. This isn’t “babying” students, as some old-fashioned critics will undoubtedly insist. It’s simply realizing that some students have different needs. This is not to mention that extensions and late homework acceptance can help de-stress students without mental illnesses too. If NU is serious about helping mentally ill students, its faculty can start by being more flexible.

Sara Halloran is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.