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My mental health is declining and as a result I haven't been a good TA. For example I let my students out of section early because I was too tired to present some of the material, and I did not understand some of my section notes because another TA prepared them, and I didn't read them in advance.

I also have trouble helping students during office hours, and often ask students to repeat themselves, and I don't do adequate preparation (by reading the solution sets in advance). I often don't know how to answer questions and I ask the students to collaborate with each other and solicit help from people who have already solved the problem. I wasn't the best TA to begin with, but now that I'm depressed, I am basically useless, and embarrassingly so.

I feel pretty bad about this and I am also terrified that my students will complain to the professor, who is friends with my advisor. What should I do? I haven't told the professor or anyone about my diagnosis (of bipolar disorder). And I am afraid to talk to the people at the school counseling center, because they might force me to take time off (this happened to me in college), and I can't really do that in grad school without irreparably burning bridges.

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    Can you clarify "irreparably burning bridges"? What are the problems you expect? – Patricia Shanahan Feb 28 '15 at 2:12
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    @PatriciaShanahan I am afraid my advisor and everyone else I am working with will think I am a useless liability, and they shouldn't have worked with me or chosen to supervise me. Once I tell them I'm mentally unstable, I can't un-tell them. – Jennifer Feb 28 '15 at 7:52
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    "now that I'm depressed, I am basically useless" Don't trust your perception. Depression distorts the way that people see the world. What you see as 'useless' may in fact be useful - even getting students to help each other is useful because it helps them to learn. Your job isn't just to memorise and repeat things, it's to help people learn, and getting students to collaborate is a means to that end. One of the best ways of learning (for everyone) is to ask students to explain a problem to the class. – bain Feb 28 '15 at 11:53
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    You sound like every TA I have ever had. – horse hair Feb 28 '15 at 21:51
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    May I suggest changing the title of your question from "What do I do as a depressed and incompetent TA" to "What do I do as a depressed TA"? I think there is no problem of incompetence here. According to your description you know what is wrong with your teaching: not preparing in advance. Or rather, not being able to prepare in advance because your depression does not allow you to find the forces to tackle the task. Is that right? If it is, you're not incompetent. I am sure you would do fine if you weren't depressed. :-) – lodebari Mar 1 '15 at 13:46

10 Answers 10

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Ohhh, no, I'm so sorry you're going through this. I deal with depression too.

First, you really need to recognize that everything you're perceiving, you're perceiving through a Fog of Depression. Your brain is attacking your self-esteem and motivation, and also causing you to worry about things that you don't need to worry about nearly as much as you think you do, and it seems even more awful because you can't see an end to your problems. There is, in fact, an end--there is a solution out there--and you can find it and your life will get better again.

This includes your perception of your past performance. You have been doing better than you think. (Yes, you have.) Don't dismiss your efforts.

Second, talk to your professor. Straightforward honesty can help you get to the root of your problems and start fixing them. If your prof is a human and not a jackal in a human suit, they shouldn't think any less of you for something you can't control. (No, you can't control the fact that you have an illness. You're not just being lazy.) There may be school policies in place protecting you from discrimination based on mental illness, which may or may not be a thing you'll see. Your worries on this count may be entirely baseless depending on what the people around you are like. Remember, you are chemically disposed towards pessimism right now and it's screwing with your head--you need to learn to recognize the thought patterns that cue you in as to when it's the depression talking.

If you don't tell your professor, then at least tell SOMEONE about your diagnosis. It doesn't even have to be someone official. Just tell someone who won't make you feel like crap about it and will maybe go to Dairy Queen with you sometimes to cheer you up. Getting out of the house/apartment/dorm/whatever is really important.

Third--It's the middle of winter; could your mental illness be worse because you've got some seasonal affective disorder on the side? If so, you should buy some full-spectrum "daylight" light bulbs. I'm talking about the kind where the color temperature is something like 5000 or 6500, instead of 2700 or whatever lower number. This helps replace sunlight in winter when your brain is missing it, and using those light bulbs in your living spaces, like in your desk lamp and so on, can help dramatically with SAD. I know it sounds like one of those bizarre homeopathic remedies, but it does work--there are studies out there and my personal experience backs them up, you can Google for them if you're interested.

Fourth, sometimes you do need to take time for yourself. Ask yourself: would the mental health professionals at your university really recommend something that would ruin your career? Where did you get the information that taking time off would burn bridges? Is it based in fact, or in anxiety? I'm not saying that your worries are for-sure baseless, but you need to double-check. You can tell the counselors about your concerns, too. And maybe you don't need to take a lot of time off--maybe a month while you try out a medication, or even less time while you just take time out to relax and take care of yourself.

I know I have a bad habit of taking things on that I can handle academically--like, I learn well enough to take them on, they're nothing I can't understand--but they're too difficult to keep up with emotionally and I have to step back one way or another. That's okay. Everyone has limits, no one's Superman, you're not a robot. But because you're not a robot, your limits WILL change over time. You've learned you're dealing with a problem; once you adjust to coping with it and find out what works, your limits will expand again. Sometimes you need time away from stress to get to that point though.

Fifth and related: take time out for self-care. Bake a cake (like this one), take care of a houseplant (green oxalis or african violets will bloom indoors), learn how to properly keep a betta fish (the people over at the forum bettafish will happily tell you how to make a betta live for years instead of months), cook yourself dinner instead of ordering takeout, read a few chapters of a kids' fantasy book each night, take a long bath with soap that smells nice, spend time with your friends, listen to music, leave the house just to buy a cookie at a coffee shop, follow a web comic (you might like this one--hold out on it, the art starting in Vol2 is pretty odd but it gets better fast).

This point might seem off-topic, but it isn't. You really do need to make sure that the thing that's been stressing you out isn't your whole life.

Good luck :) We're rooting for you!

  • Upvote for the Girl Genius link. Well, really for all the good advice… but also for the Girl Genius link. – PLL Mar 3 '15 at 9:55
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I utterly disagree with Mad Jack. You do not need to resign and by resigning, you set yourself up for a future where you will think of resigning every time you have a task that you do not think you will be able to complete to the high standards you set for yourself.

Try to disaggregate the two things -- the depression and the incompetence. If you are merely incompetent (or not as competent as you would like to be), read the rest of this answer. If your depression is putting you at risk to yourself or others (and will not be alleviated by acceptance that one cannot be competent at all things all the time), then perhaps Mad Jack's advice is warranted.

Now, about incompetence.

The reality is that you cannot be good at everything you do. Not all classes go well - even with the best of intentions. Sometimes, a class just fails. Sometimes it's your fault, sometimes it's the students, sometimes it's a combination. There are many classes that I've wished that I could have quit teaching halfway through.1

Sure, after you finish this semester your TA evals might be bad, they might be scorchingly bad. But that's ok. You fulfilled your obligation -- poorly, perhaps -- but you fulfilled them. The students themselves will recover. It's terrible that we can't all be always be stellar teachers, but we're human beings. You're just a blip -- one section of one of the 32 classes they take at the university.

You've found out that teaching does not come naturally and that teaching is hard. This is a good life lesson. It's part of your graduate education. You will get better at teaching the more you do it -- or at least figure out how to work around your incompetencies. We all do.

1. In the interest of full disclosure, I also struggle from depression and so this is written to you from the position of a peer. This advice is of course null and void if you at risk of entirely melting down. Your first duty is to yourself. But only you can know how close you are to endangering your own health for the sake of the class -- not anonymous internet peers.

Anecdote: I was forced to TA a class on a topic that I knew nothing about when I was a grad student. It quickly became clear that the even the most basic students knew infinitely more than I did about the subject. I was a terrible, terrible TA but my professor worked around me, the students learned to never come to my sections or office hours, and somehow we made it work. Now every time I get assigned a terrible TA, I believe it to be karmic retribution for my past sins. So talk to your professor. S/he may have also been a terrible TA and may be more than willing to work with you on this.

Finally, mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder are not incompatible with academia. There are many successful academics with tenure (Kay Redfield Jamison and Emily Martin have both written books on their own experiences with bipolar disorder). Yes, during our trough periods things can be hard to do, but when the fog lifts we tend to be more productive. I've used that successfully to write two books, publish numerous articles, blah blah. Fortunately I'm at a university that allows for some umm ... eccentrism in the faculty body. I am three sigmas on that scale. :-)

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    I am not getting it. So the person receives money for being a TA, but he can not do the work because he does not know a material good enough to answer students' questions. And based on your answer it is not his fault. You encourage him not to resign and continue poorly perform his job. Sounds strange to me. – Salvador Dali Feb 28 '15 at 6:11
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    You can not be good at everything, but if you are bad at something do not agree to take tasks you can not complete. Imagine yourself in the hospital, where a nurse is unable to perform her basic duties (she is good at farming, so she can not also be good at the tasks she performs here). She fulfilled her obligation poorly (instead of pill_A she gave you pill_B) but she fulfilled them. You as a patient will survive (hopefully). How would you as a patient feel about her incompetency? Don't you think that she should quit/be fired and give a place for another a better prepared nurse? – Salvador Dali Feb 28 '15 at 6:12
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    @SalvadorDali you seem to have a naive idea of how the world works. People who are new at their job might often make a mess of it at some point early on. That doesn't mean they should quit. And yes it happens to doctors and nurses too - hopefully there is a senior person looking over their shoulder. In a university the senior person is the professor. – Sasho Nikolov Feb 28 '15 at 6:47
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    @SalvadorDali we do not know enough to make this judgement. And I don't think the somewhat dramatic analogies are helpful. – Sasho Nikolov Feb 28 '15 at 7:09
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    @SalvadorDali The original poster has only a few weeks left. It is unlikely that the department could find someone else who from scratch could come in and do a better job in that short time frame. This is not life or death in the intensive care unit; this is a TA job. But putting that aside, your callous attitude makes me hope that you never find yourself suffering a mood disorder such as depression; it's far worse than you seem to be capable of imagining. – Corvus Feb 28 '15 at 7:12
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There are at least two issues, what to do about your TA performance, and what to do about your depression. You need help with both.

Depression could affect your self-evaluation. Your performance as a TA may be fine with some minor problems, or could be really bad, and you might not be able to tell the difference. You need an objective observer to evaluate how you are doing before deciding what, if anything, to do about it.

Similarly, if depression is affecting you to the point where you at least feel you are incompetent, whether accurately or not, you may need medical help with that.

The real problem is your feeling that seeking out help will risk "irreparably burning bridges". I know by practical experience that graduate students needing leave or other accommodations for medical issues is something that happens, something for which colleges have procedures in place. I don't know why you feel seeking help from the school counseling center, and if necessary taking medical leave, would be such a serious step in your case.

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    Thanks for your input Patricia! I've had experience with school counseling centers, and the last time I told them I was depressed, they forced me to go on medical leave, and encouraged me to transfer to another university. In general universities do not care if you are suicidal, as long as you don't kill yourself on their campus. – Jennifer Feb 28 '15 at 7:44
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    @Jennifer Suffering from a mood disorder is not incompatible with being a good student -- or a good scientist at any level. You might be surprised at how common mood disorders are among successful faculty. You would never say "I tricked him into thinking I was a good student, when really I have lupus" -- so I don't think you should be saying this about bipolar disorder either. – Corvus Feb 28 '15 at 8:10
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    @Jennifer as an example for what Corvus said, in this page, RoboKaren said to be struggling with depression too, and she has managed to get tenure on a large R1University. – Davidmh Feb 28 '15 at 8:18
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    @Jennifer A few points. (1) you can get better and you may be able to stay better for long periods of time (2) when you are well you add huge value or you wouldn't have gotten into the lab (3) several of the most creative, productive scientists I know suffer from bipolar disorder; I'd be very proud to have been the advisor for any of them. – Corvus Feb 28 '15 at 8:23
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    +100 for "depression could affect your self-evaluation". – Moriarty Feb 28 '15 at 9:15
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Whoa. Everyone here is missing a key point: This is bipolar, not just depression. This is very serious -- this is the disorder that killed Robin Williams. Jennifer's functioning is affected during the depressed phase and it's getting worse.

Jennifer, your first priority is to save yourself. The prof can get a new TA, although it might not need to come to that if you get some help first. By letting this go on, you are causing the very thing you don't want to happen: Your students will complain, your professor and advisor will find out, and you will be looking at some consequences that you don't want to happen.

Get ahead of this thing now before that happens. Get on meds -- there are some really good ones out now. You can keep your moods in check by following a treatment plan. Also, remember, when you are in your depressed state, you aren't making good decisions and your thinking may be distorted -- some of the things you fear may not happen. Therapy is confidential -- what happens in session stays in session. Your job may also be protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. A therapist can give you an extra set of eyes and ears and give you a more hopeful perspective and a better way of dealing with this. It sounds like you could use someone in your corner right now so that you aren't battling this by yourself. That must feel very lonely and overwhelming.

There are low cost options through universities and county mental health services. Your first good decision would be to find a source of help and just get there.

Good luck, Jennifer.

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Jennifer,

My heart goes out to you. I am an educator who has also suffered from depression. Each case is unique and I am not sure if my personal insights will be helpful in your situation. First of all teaching and learning are very complex endeavors. Perhaps you have unrealistic expectations for what makes a successful teacher. Each student brings their own baggage to the classroom that can interfere with the learning process. This baggage is persistent and often stays with a person over a lifetime. As a result, there is ALWAYS more a teacher could do to help their students. Expecting to solve everything is unrealistic and defeating. Herculean efforts still are not enough to meet everyone's needs. If this is your goal, it is easy to get in a state of mind that any preparation is wasted effort because it only leads to failure. In fact, the act of preparing can make you feel hopeless so it becomes harder and harder to do. Lack of preparation makes you less successful so you feel even more the failure leading to an escalating spiral.

My advice would be to try to set small, realistic goals and prepare to achieve these goals. For example, you could prepare the session so students have a better understanding of . . . After recitation, be sure to be realistic about your performance. Remember you can't be everything to everyone. If something comes up that seems to be a need among many students, let yourself off the hook for not meeting that need during this session. Perhaps make it your small, realistic goal for the next session if it is important enough and seems to be a problem for a significant number of students. When you start to think of the problems of individuals, remind yourself of your small goal and pat yourself on the back for meeting that goal. Choose your small goals carefully so you get the most bang for your buck. Ask yourself what seems to be giving the most students difficulties AND is most important to their understanding of the fundamental principles. Most importantly, acknowledge and celebrate your successes. Don't define unmet student needs as failures but as possible opportunities for future goals. Keep those future goals small and focused, remembering a class of students has more needs than any one person will be able to meet.

Best wishes to you, Jennifer. Know that others struggle with these issues as well.

  • +1 for "there is ALWAYS more a teacher could do to help their students". – Corvus Mar 1 '15 at 1:47
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This post really struck me because I am also a TA working on my PhD and have struggled with depression for the majority of my adult life. I've always found that I am most successful in school in my classes, my teaching, and my research when I keep my mood up. That being said, keeping my mood up has been a task more difficult than school could ever be, so rather than addressing your concerns specific to being a TA, I figured I would share with you what I have found works best to keep my mood in check. Note though, that this is merely one man's personal experience, not based in scientific research.

Now, I've tried plenty of medications, and I've never found one that works for me. Either they make me feel strange, they don't work, or they cloud my thoughts(which is unacceptable for someone trying to do research in a thought subject). If a medication does work for you, then that is great. I am going to discuss the alternative options that I have found for keeping my mood up.

There are really three main things that I have found to be successful at keeping my depression at bay: Exercise, a healthy diet, and choosing to do the little things for the future. Exercise and diet are obvious. I try not to take either to the extreme, but I try to run a few times a week, and do some kind of strength training activity a few times a week. Recently that activity has been rock-climbing at my university's rec. I also just try to make little changes to my diet(get a salad rather than fries with a meal when I eat out, buy higher quality foods with more wholesome ingredients, substitute V8 or unsweatened tea or other non-sugarwater flavorful beverage for all that pop[soda/coke/proper regional substitute] I was drinking) and I try to avoid having an ongoing relationship with the pizza delivery man.)

Now, doing the little things for the future... this is the one that I use to pull myself out of a bad funk(you can't start exercising or eating right when you can't even get off the couch, so those two come a little later). This is something that seems so insignificant that I am able to accomplish it even in the worst of my depressive fits, but has an interesting psychological impact on me.

So what do I mean by the little things? Brushing my teeth for example. cleaning up my house a little, doing the dishes. Taking a shower. doing my laundry. Now, these are all very basic things, and you probably are already doing some/most/all of them, but what you might not be doing is thinking about what they mean. After I do one of these things,brushing my teeth for example, I ask myself "if I really wanted to end it right now, why would I care about my dental hygiene?" that answer is, I wouldn't. So, why did I just brush my teeth? the only logical conclusion is that I don't want to end it right now. Our minds have an amazing way of rationalizing things, and it has trouble when it cannot find reasons for why we do what we do. If I don't consciously think about that though, my mind won't realize that the only reason I would have brushed my teeth is because I want to continue on. I know this sounds so simple and basic, but repetitive use of this technique has gotten me out of some very dark places, and to a point where I could start eating right and exercising.

Now, as I said, these things have worked for me. I cannot guarantee that they will work for you, but if you do choose to use them, I wish you the best of luck in controlling your mood, and hopefully in turn becoming the best TA you can be.

6

What do I do as a depressed and incompetent TA?

The students are suffering as a result of your condition. So I think the right thing to do is

  1. seek help for yourself, and
  2. ask to be removed from your TA post until you are able to effectively TA again.
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    Thanks for the advice. How can I do this without burning bridges? – Jennifer Feb 28 '15 at 1:48
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    @Jennifer Explain the situation to your advisor. They are people, and will not consider you telling them about heath problems "burning bridges". If you are in for example the US or Europe, the university legally has to make reasonable accommodations for you, so you might for example be allowed to be a grader (no student contact, minimal stress compared to TAing) instead. – Johanna Feb 28 '15 at 1:51
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    I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer while I was a PhD student. I got permission to go to one course unit of research for a quarter during treatment, so that I was still registered and had a parking permit, but did a minimal amount of work. As far as I can tell, effectively taking a quarter off for medical reasons did not burn any bridges at all. – Patricia Shanahan Feb 28 '15 at 1:52
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    @Jennifer While there are no guarantees, I think it is better to be forthright with your professor and advisor about your condition. See, for example, the following question: When is it appropriate for a PhD student to discuss personal problems affecting his productivity with his advisor? – Mad Jack Feb 28 '15 at 2:02
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    I think that offering to step down might be the right thing to do, but that's slightly different than resigning. Some instistutions might rather have a bad TA than no TA at all, so you might be putting them in a tougher spot by abruptly stepping down. I'd recommend being forthright with the dept, but, instead of asking to be removed, saying something more along the lines of: "I'll gladly step aside if you have someone who can replace me – but I'll do my best to tough it out if need be." – J.R. Feb 28 '15 at 21:53
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First off, disclaimer - this is not clinical advice!

I think the best thing to do is get support from other people around you. The worst thing is when you have to deal with this alone. In theory, a therapist can supply some of that, but I think you need to share what you have told us with friends around you that can relate to your situation. They may have dealt with something similar before, and they might be able to help you with knowledge about the subject you are TA-ing. One powerful way to use them is to make specific commitments that you share with them, so that they can hold you accountable.

It seems to me that the most immediate thing to deal with is your inability to commit time to preparation for your sessions. So, work out a schedule that lets you prepare, share it with a friend and report to them daily on your progress. Don't lie and don't make excuses. Stop using social media. Don't work at home. These are things that have helped me ;)

Ultimately, it is likely that your problems with TA-ing are linked to lack of confidence in your abilities. That's a big topic, but as a PhD student, you were selected because you are good at something. You don't need to be an expert in everything and you don't need to be afraid to admit it to others - even your students. Focus on the things you are good at (think about what made a PhD possible for you), learn more about the things that are interesting to you, and become just competent enough in the rest.

I am sure it would be possible to arrange time off for mental health reasons, and this should not "burn bridges". But it seems to me that you feel down because you are not doing well, not the other way around. Taking time off is not going to change anything except save you from this particular course and reinforce the idea that you can't do it. Instead, I would focus on getting through this TA. Set some ground rules for yourself that you can't break - for example, you can't finish the session early, you have to spend X hours preparing, etc. And don't worry - the students will learn what they need even while having a so-so TA.

I wish you the best!

5

Things like this are difficult but you need to ask for help from a psychiatrist. With the right kind of medication it would be able to help you quite a bit. Don't be afraid of asking for help.

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    This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post - you can always comment on your own posts, and once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post. – Davidmh Feb 28 '15 at 20:20
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    On the contrary, @Davidmh, this is the best possible answer to this question. The Stack Exchange community are generally not qualified to answer a question such as this. Jennifer needs to pose this question to a professional, such as a trained counsellor, psychotherapist or psychiatrist. It frightens me to see "strangers on the internet" acting as if they were mental health professionals. I am not a mental health professional, but I know where to find one, and how to make an appointment with one; and the best advice I could give to Jennifer would be to do exactly that. – Dawood ibn Kareem Mar 1 '15 at 1:30
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    And specifically, a mental health professional can give some advice how to approach your employer, and a lot of advice what support you should want from them (e.g. whether or not leave would be good or bad for you at this point). Or, even if they couldn't do that, this answer would be incorrect but it's still an answer. The questions posed are "what do I do?" (title) and "what should I do?" (question body). This is a direct answer: you should ask a psychiatrist for help with the stated problems. – Steve Jessop Mar 1 '15 at 1:56
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The thing is: the vast majority of professors actually do care about the well-being of their graduate students. I certainly did not realize this when I was a graduate student myself, but you have to know that professors are people too: they have children who may be sick or are struggling in school; they have parents affected by old age; they have friends who have problems. In other words, while you as a graduate student typically only interact with your professor in a professional capacity, they do understand issues such as mental health. They may also have been through similar issues with other students before.

The way you describe your situation -- regardless of whether your perception is accurate or not -- is not good for anyone. First of all, it's not good for you. It's not good for your students. And it's not good for the department who put you in this class. The key to improve the situation for everyone is to make you better, but this will not happen unless you take the first step and talk about it with those who can help you. I am certain that most professors will see it as their professional duty (and their human duty) to find ways to help you. As I said above, they may in fact have dealt with similar situations before (for example, I think that I have sent home every single one of my students at least once when I saw that they had trouble with private issues, and I have talked to almost every one of my students about personal problems at various times). They also typically have large professional networks both within and outside the department to look for the best ways to find you help. They also have the resources to replace you in the classroom if necessary. The two solution the least productive to anyone are (i) to fire you, given that everyone has invested time into you and that they likely feel towards you as humans should, and (ii) let you continue to struggle in the classroom and be unproductive.

So, my advice is to talk to your professor. It is the first step to build a network of people around you who you can go to for help if you find that your health issues collide with your professional obligations. If you do not feel like you can talk about these things with your professor about this right away, first talk to someone else in the department (the graduate coordinator, the department head, one of the administrative assistants, a postdoc in your lab) and ask them if they can mediate a meeting with your professor. As I said, my experience tells me that everyone will find it quite obvious that the first order of business needs to be make sure you get better.

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