Does My Breakdown Need a Doctor’s Note?
At a school where absences are rarely excused, it becomes hard to know when we’ve reached our breaking point.
November 18, 2019
One recent Sunday morning, I awoke to a queasiness in my stomach that, within minutes, prompted me to stumble out of bed and onto my knees in front of my toilet. I was violently ill and I knew in my heart that I could not go to my Sunday newspaper meetings or complete any of my assignments for the following day. How could I have? I could barely stand without falling or drink water without regurgitating it moments later. And yet, my extreme discomfort did not prompt the usual disappointment that I could not fulfill my extracurricular duties or anxiety that I would not be able to remain attentive in Monday’s classes. Instead, I felt a powerful rush of relief. This was the first true break I had been allowed in months. Sitting on my bathroom floor, covered in spit and sweat, I was finally allowed a moment of rest.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Why was it that I felt the only guilt-free break I could take had to be caused by illness? Was it that my rest was not of my own volition? That I had no choice but to stay home lest I puke in the middle of Third Avenue on my way to work? Was it that the only excusable absence I could take had to be a medical emergency?
My rationale did not manifest overnight or independently. My academic anxiety has been fomenting for years and that Sunday, it reached its catharsis. But this behavior, as irrational as it may seem, was learned and developed. The only absences I’ve been taught to allow myself have been the absences that I’ve been taught are excusable, absences that deal with serious illness or death.
It is general practice at NYU that you may be excused from your university obligations if you are sick (and provide a doctor’s note) or if you have to attend to a family emergency. Outside of these two scenarios, absences are not guaranteed to be excused and are excused on a case-by-case basis at teaching assistants’ and professors’ discretion. And because syllabi are not standardized, attendance policies often differ dramatically depending on the course. The consequences of this are obvious; with unstandardized, often strict absence policies, students are forced to weigh their health against their professor’s preferences. Even if one professor is lenient about excused absences, another that same day may be incredibly strict and apathetic. In this scenario, the student has to choose between staying home and being marked down by one professor or going to class and not taking the time they need to rest.
Adequate time for rest, especially in the midst of the chaos of NYU, is crucial. At a university that has been consistently voted one of the top 10 most stress-inducing in the country, with a casual culture of depression-bonding, the need for a more lenient absence policy is not just a plea for mid-week vacations, but often a matter of public health regulation. And while NYU has made strides in the past few years to bolster its mental health resources, little to no attention has been paid to attendance regulations and, in a more broad sense, course hours. After all, being a student is not just about attending classes, but about completing the workloads attached to them. And when you have four professors per semester who all believe that their class should be your top priority, that workload can be unbearable. Despite this, the university does not mandate any limits on how much homework professors can assign. While some courses could entail a one-hour homework commitment a week, another could assign readings that take five times as long.
I must acknowledge here that the student does have agency and is responsible, in part, for their workload and time management. I often overcommit, knowing that I will somehow get everything done in the end, even if it’s at the cost of my own mental health. This past spring semester, for instance, I served as WSN’s Film & TV editor, oversaw research at a real estate startup in Midtown and maintained a 3.77 GPA in the College of Arts and Science. By the end of the semester, I was depressed, drained and utterly demoralized. My resume had gained a few new bullet points, but at what cost? I had done everything right; why wasn’t I happy?
These questions are hard to answer and I still haven’t fully come to terms with them. There were days that semester that I woke up and couldn’t get out of bed for hours, except to force myself to email a handful of professors to let them know what was going on. To their credit, they were all incredibly supportive, but sending those emails was both stressful and embarrassing. I don’t want to disclose the state of my mental health to my professors. Why you miss class shouldn’t be anyone’s business other than your own (and possibly a medical professional’s). Your breakdown should not have to be public knowledge for it to be excused. You should not have to leave your house and see a doctor to prove that you need to stay at home.
Change, however, does not happen overnight, and in the absence of a supportive administration and adequate mental health resources, students need to develop coping mechanisms to address the few things they can to alleviate their stress. Here are some tips that I have picked up on or have been recommended:
Choose your courses conservatively. If you can avoid it, try not to have four reading-intensive courses in a semester. Don’t be afraid to take easy courses; it doesn’t make you a lesser student.
Do not overcommit. It’s much better to have free time than no time.
Check in with yourself early in the semester and often. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. If you’re not sleeping enough in February, you probably won’t be sleeping at all in May.
Don’t rush. You have time to get it all done and you will be just fine. No GPA is worth risking your health, mental or otherwise.
College should help you grow, not break you down. Whether or not NYU recognizes that, you need to know that’s why you’re here and no one can take that away from you.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 18, 2019 print edition. Email Claire Fishman at [email protected]