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I'm an undergraduate in my junior year, and I've been having an especially bad month when it comes to my mental health and academic performance. Two weeks ago, I discovered that I had two midterms, one major project, and an 6-8 page essay due on the same day. I explained my workload to the professor who assigned the essay, and he was kind enough to give me an indefinite extension on the essay (as in, I could "turn it in whenever it was ready", although I assumed that 1-2 weeks was what he would prefer). Since I was granted that extension, I've completely flunked the major project and received C's on the two midterms, all of which I prepared extensively for once I didn't have to worry about the essay. The professor has started hinting that he'd like essays he gave extensions on (he gave extensions to about half the class, since a good 2/3 of our university got the flu around then) to be turned in soon, since he's expecting to receive more essays from another class he's teaching, and doesn't want to be overwhelmed by grading.

It's been two weeks since he gave me the extension. I've spent nearly all of those two weeks attempting to write the essay and then completely breaking down. I start thinking about how kind he was to give me an extension in the first place, and how, by not turning it in by now I'm taking advantage of his kindness, and how my reputation among my department's professors will be ruined. I think about how this essay has to be perfect, since I've completely failed my assignments for every other class, and I have to get this one thing right. I wrote 4 pages of the essay and then deleted them all. I wrote 3 pages of the same paragraph with slightly different wording each time in an attempt to get it perfect. My outline (for this 6-8 page paper!) is 7 pages long. But I have no paper, and I have other major midterms coming up that really just compound my panic over this.

So my question is: how do I talk about this issue with the professor? I want him to know that I'm not trying to take advantage of him or slack off, and that I do actually know the material (as my ridiculously detailed outline shows), but I feel like walking into his office hours and telling him about how my nightly panic attacks are keeping me from writing this essay is...inappropriate? Should I mention my mental health issues at all, or will that seem like some sort of weak excuse?

  • While the marked duplicate is about an exam, not an assignment, I believe the answers apply equally to your situation. Best of luck with your studies. – ff524 Oct 15 '15 at 4:20
  • Nothing's been diagnosed (I've made an appointment with my university's counseling center, but they can't see me until next month), but I'm pretty certain it's anxiety. I'd also like to be clear and say that I'm not trying to go to my professor and say "I have a documented mental illness, so you have to give me more time"; I'm trying to figure out if mentioning my recent problems with my mental health is appropriate when I speak to him about what actions we should take next regarding my grade in this class/on this essay – RJacobs Oct 15 '15 at 4:24
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    If you believe this is a mental health issue, you should treat it as such. Your professor is not trained in dealing with mental health issues, your ADA office is. Talk to them and let them help you figure out the next step. They can help you communicate with your professors. (They can also tell you what documentation you'll need from the counseling center, which will be useful not just for this issue, but for future issues that may arise that may require extra accommodations.) – ff524 Oct 15 '15 at 4:29
  • I voted to reopen because in the related question, the student was already diagnosed and in therapy. On the other hand, technically, this question is not kosher because the student is an undergrad. However, the problem as described could just as well be for a grad student. – aparente001 Oct 17 '15 at 3:18
  • You can see a medical doctor about your mental health problem, and you can go right away. // You will feel a whole lot better after you talk to someone about what's going on. Try calling your local Suicide and Crisis Service. You need not be feeling suicidal to call. // Please find a supportive friend to accompany you to any meetings you have with professors and administrators about your difficulties. // You may want to consider withdrawing from a class. It can be beneficial to cut your losses and salvage part of your semester. // Although it might be hard, please, talk to your parents. – aparente001 Oct 17 '15 at 3:35
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A number of the things you mentioned you've been thinking about the situation, i.e. you're taking advantage of the teacher's kindness, how your reputation will be ruined etc possibly fall under the category of unhelpful thinking styles or cognitive distortions which are common misguided ways in which people think that often leads to an unhelpful outcome. People with depression and anxiety can be particularly bad at thinking in these misguided ways.

I would recommend seeing a professional mental health expert like a GP or Psychologist as soon as possible and not waiting one month for the councillor. There are lots of tools that professionals can teach to help manage stressful situations like these. Seeing a professional doesn't imply that there is anything wrong with you either. From your post, it seems like you're having a natural reaction to an incredibly high workload and that you haven't gone completely 'off the rails' so to speak. Seeing a professional can help prevent things from getting any worse.

In the meantime, I think the action you should take becomes clearer if you acknowledge that your previous thoughts might be the result of unhelpful thinking patterns. For example: You don't actually know that your reputation is going to be ruined. That impression is most likely the result of some assumptions about someone's reactions. In truth, there are a number of possible outcomes and it is futile to worry about the one possible negative outcome as if that outcome is certain.

I think that the best thing for you to do is to sit down and write out everything you need to do, how long roughly it will take to do and when you are going to do it. If you really need an extension, go and ask the teacher for one and explain the situation and the action you are taking to fix it.

You might find worksheets such as these useful to reduce anxiety levels about the perceived consequences of actions.

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I agree with all of @NickTimSpurry's suggestions, but here are some more thoughts:

Don't overestimate the magnitude of kindness in the extension. Suppose you have a fence in your yard that needs repainting and you've arranged for some handyman to come do it. But - it's an area of the yard that you're not using and don't expect to use for months. So if you tell him "you can come paint the fence whenever you like" - you're being marginally kind; it's not as though it will hurt you in any way if he does it in a month from now. Also, you said most of the class got an extension; that means the timing was problematic to begin with.

A talk with the Professor doesn't have to be a "Help I'm having an emotional crisis" talk. While it's probable that breaking down while writing the paper has underlying issues you need to work out, it also is what it is - a problem writing a paper - so you can schedule a talk with your Professor telling him that you're having trouble with the paper and would like his help. In such a meeting you could bring up your ideas for the structure, and the gist of what you've done so far; and ask him concrete questions about any dilemma you may have had w.r.t. the actual content. But you also mention that writing the paper has been a very difficult experience for you emotionally / psychologically, that you feel frustrated and compelled to start over, and as time passes you're experiencing guilt for not having completed it yet.

If you frame your situation this way, it's now: 1. Part of a wider conversation 2. Not putting the Professor in a position of having to solve your psychological problem - but rather of giving advice through the angle of the paper 3. A bit detached, as though you're telling him about the experiences of some third party writing the paper, and that might be easier for him to process and for you to say out loud.

So even though you might not be able to communicate/share the full depth of what you feel, the partial sharing is safer (in terms of how he might react) and already in itself useful emotionally for you. And this I say from experience with anxiety/depression myself.

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