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I am 22 years old and I have recently began my first year of grad school. It is very overwhelming. Everyone seems to have more developed thoughts than I do, and all my classmates are 2nd or 3rd year PhD students who speak in metaphors. I have struggled with anxiety and depression for about 5 years now. I have had all kinds of treatment for it. I am currently not being treated for it. About a year ago I decided I did not want to take medicine anymore, and my doctor gave me permission to wean myself off of it. Up until last month I was okay. The way I feel right now I have not felt in two years. My anxiety attacks are prevalent and I am so overwhelmed with sadness I cant get up in the morning or eat. . I have probably about 3/4 attacks a day and because of it I have not been to my class in 3 weeks. I am up to date on all assignments, however, participation is 25% of my grade and I have now missed a total of 4 classes out of 12 overall.

I do not know how to talk to my professor about this. I have crippling anxiety when speaking to professors about my struggle with anxiety due to a bad experience. In my last semester of undergrad, I disclosed to my law professor that I had anxiety in general, and also extreme anxiety when speaking in front of a large group. He essentially told me that he did not care and I needed to get over it. He also said that if i ever tried again to "take an easy way out", he would fail me. Long story short, I got up in front of the class to present my brief and I fainted two minutes in. My professor laughed and made jokes about me and I decided not to apply to law school. I am forever scarred by this and I am tempted to just take a W in this class, but I feel deep down that the right thing to do is talk to my professor first. If anyone has any advice for me, I would really appreciate it. I am just very insecure about this. Sometimes my depression convinces me that I am not depressed at all and I should just get over it, but I don't know how.

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    Does your school have a disabilities office? (If you are in the US, they do; it's required by law.) They should be able to help you with this. (Try to visit them sooner, rather than later; this will likely make it easier for them to help you.) – ff524 Oct 14 '16 at 6:57
  • They do. I just don't know what they can do for me. I don't know what i would be asking for from them. It isnt as if I need help on tests or extended due dates. I'm sure you are right, I just dont know what they would say or be able to do. – user63290 Oct 14 '16 at 6:59
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    If you are missing class due to your health issues, they may be able to help you make alternative arrangements to "make up" your participation grades. They can also help you communicate with your professors (including, if you want, telling your professors that you're missing class for health reasons and keeping the details private from them). Or if you decide that withdrawing from the course is the right thing for you to do, they may be able to help you arrange a medical withdrawal. – ff524 Oct 14 '16 at 7:01
  • They can also direct you to psychological help. A psychologist can teach you how to deal with and prevent anxiety attacks. And if you are clinically depressed, your chances of recovering are much better with treatment. – Davidmh Oct 14 '16 at 7:50
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    And BTW, the professor that laughed at you was a humongous jerk and shouldn't be teaching. Fortunately, there aren't so many of these, I hope you find an understanding person. – Davidmh Oct 14 '16 at 7:52
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First, everyone feels overwhelmed in grad school, and nearly everyone suffers from imposter syndrome. It isn't just you who feels like everyone around you is better. This isn't likely to help with your illness, obviously, but I think every grad student is better off once they internalize that idea.

As @ff524 pointed out in the comments, the first thing you need to do is go talk to your school's disabilities office. You don't need to go in with a clear picture of how it goes or what you want out of it - you just need to go in and explain the situation to them just as you did to us. It's their job to help you, and very often that includes facilitating conversations with your professors as well.

You don't have to go to your professor and throw yourself on their mercy. I understand why you would be traumatized from the awful experience you described, but understand that what that professor did wasn't just wrong, it was likely illegal. Faculty have clear obligations that the disabilities office will help them understand and work through, just like they help you.

You should also get in touch with a mental health professional. If you're in a new town away from your old one, go to your school's health center and I'm certain they can refer you.

Basically the only "wrong" thing you could do is to continue doing nothing. Get in and get help right away, and don't feel even remotely bad about doing so. This is exactly what those resources are there for.

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On top of the already good answers given by @Jeff.L and @aparente001, I just wanted to give an extra tip since I have dealt with this a lot (runs in my family).

You have problems, and they've already had an effect on your performance. That's now part of your history. The future, on the other hand, is still fair game. Obviously you wish those problems would go away so you could have a better future, but you feel that's impossible because you've already screwed up badly and you don't think your problems will go away. Now, you can't change the past and you will likely have those emotional/mental issues forever, but you are in control of how much you let those problems affect your daily life starting now.

You know when you lie in bed for hours for hours on end, dwelling on all your regrets (academics, research, love, overall self-worth, etc.)? You know when you go about your day and can't stop thinking about how screwed you are? Here's what I tell myself: "I've got deep seated emotional problems and a long-list of screw ups, so it's quite likely that I am a no-good loser with a bleak future. However, if I start trying to fix my future now (e.g. by coming up with a rational plan and putting into action), it can only become better, and that's worth something."

I know this all might sound obvious, but for a long time I had always subconsciously separated my problems and my dwellings on those problems. I was only able to start feeling better after I realized that thinking about those problems was a problem by itself, and that I could in fact fix it by just forcing myself to only do things that would make things better (of course, against my mopey-self's will).

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Professors are chosen based on their research track record, funding they obtained, and personal relationships. Teaching and social skills play only a minor role in the selection process, and while universities try to offer training, few make use of such offers. While school teachers usually are trained in paedagogy, university professors are usually not!

Thus, professors tend to have very little (i.e. no) training for such situations, either. They will not be able to help you much, you are likely better off with a professional doctor and the university services. I'm pretty sure there is a counseling service that can also talk to your professors.

Furthermore, professors do get a lot of bad excuses presented, including very weird claims. So they tend to apply a simple rule: you need to present a (e.g. medical) certificate that you were unable to take the test, or e.g. require some special treatment. You can get such certificates in the responsible offices at the university.

And they are probably even advised by the legal department to do exactly this: delegate to the responsible people.

  • +1 It's nice to see an answer which addresses the fact that professors generally do not have adequate training for dealing with these types of situations, and, when it comes to students and the problems they face in their lives, it is very hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. – Mad Jack Oct 15 '16 at 19:54
  • In the US, the professor's rule is more likely "You have to bring this up with the dedicated office whose job it is to handle these matters, and they will tell me what accommodations to make for you without revealing your private medical details to me" (because students in the US can request accommodations without having to supply the medical certificate to the professor, from whom they may wish to keep their health situation private). – ff524 Oct 16 '16 at 6:47
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I have heard depression described as feeling as though one is in a dark hole that there is no way out of. Well, that would certainly make it harder to advocate for oneself! Therefore, you might find it helpful to work with an advocate or a peer mentor, at least in the short term. Such a person can give you a little leg up so you can start to climb out of the dark hole.

Here are some places where you might be able to find an advocate or peer mentor (you can try both the town where you are enrolled in school, as well as the place you were living prior to starting grad school):

  • county mental health association
  • disability advocacy organization (this might have a variety of titles, such as "independence center"; it's often the place that lends out wheel chairs and walkers to people who have had a recent injury -- in addition to a whole lot of other services)

  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) chapter

  • disability awareness student club at your university

If I've left something important off this list, I hope others will fill in additional ideas through comments.

I imagine that the depression itself may be contributing to your feeling that talking to a professor or administrator at the university would be useless. Also, your previous negative experiences in this area did not help!

It is very true, as @ff524 said, that there is much that a university student disability office can do, and I concur that getting connected with yours would be very worthwhile. As she pointed out, they can, among other things:

  • arrange for accommodations that will make it easier for you to function academically during difficult periods
  • assist with making your instructors aware that you are working with a special challenge, and help them understand what your accommodations are
  • arrange a medical withdrawal if you opt for that

There are two things I want you to know about university student disability offices before you contact them:

  • Although there may be someone there who may lend a sympathetic ear, and this in itself can do a person a world of good, I expect they will require medical documentation of your condition before doing anything tangible for you.

  • Some of these offices do not have, shall we say, a good bedside manner. Some do, some don't.

Even if your student disabilities office is one of the really good ones, ultimately it is going to be up to you to figure out what accommodations would be helpful for you. There is some trial and error to figuring this out, of course.

In advocating for my thirteen-year-old son, who has Tourette Syndrome, OCD, ADHD and anxiety (and has also dealt with some periods of depression), I have found it helpful to learn as much as I can about his conditions, and brainstorm accommodations by reading lists of accommodations that other students with his conditions have found helpful. I took a tiny glance on the web for university level accommodations for depression and anxiety; here are two links to get you started in this exploration:

http://www.disabilityrightsnc.org/sites/default/files/2013%20Higher%20Ed%20Self-Advocacy%20Packet%20Students%20with%20MI.pdf

https://cpr.bu.edu/resources/reasonable-accommodations/what-accommodations-support-school-performance

And now I suppose I should say something about treatment. Both cognitive behavioral treatment and pharmacological approaches can take time to show improvement in symptoms. Of course, a delay in deciding whether to start or re-start treatment would result in further delays. I think that's all I want to say on that topic.

At this point in my answer, I would like to encourage you to reread the beginning section, about the potential usefulness of working with an advocate or a peer mentor.

I must say that despite the negatives that you wrote about with great honesty in your question, the self-awareness you showed is a very good sign. Let us know how it goes!

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I'm going to also add my perspective: Professors are people to. They have spouses, children, parents, and friends who may have depression and other mental health problems, diagnosed or undiagnosed, treated or not. They're also usually a couple or three decades older, so they have seen such issues in their lives for a much longer time. They may suffer from the same issues as you do.

What I want to say is that you should expect, exceptions such as the one that you cite not withstanding, that the professors you talk to care about these issues because they've seen them in their personal lives. Make them part of your solution and let them help you.

I recognize that not everyone will be in a position to do so -- you reference one example. But if you take the courage to talk to a few people who you have had good interactions with, chances are you will find someone who is willing to talk to you about it, and willing to help find ways to help you!

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