Opinion | Professors need to be more considerate of mental health

By Kelly Xiong, Staff Columnist

Professors seem less empathic than they were just a year ago. As we start to come out of the pandemic, it seems professors think our mental health issues have suddenly been resolved. The leniency over absences once given is now revoked. 

During the 2020-21 academic year when classes were online — or mostly online — due to COVID-19, students were given leeway for attendance due to the unpredictability of the virus. We were shown so much empathy and understanding by professors during these trying times because they were experiencing the same kind of struggles as us. They told us to prioritize our mental well-being above all else and were very lenient about assignments, extensions and special accommodations. 

Now that COVID doesn’t pose as big of a threat to most of the student body, professors seem less understanding of students’ situations. I’ve noticed that professors are less forgiving about missing classes. This seems the most prevalent in smaller-sized classes, where attendance and participation are mandatory or part of the final grade. In these types of classes, students are often required to provide a doctor’s note for their absence in order for their grades to remain unaffected. This is very unrealistic, especially for out-of-state students like myself since finding a medical facility that accepts my insurance is difficult. 

The most accessible health provider for Pitt students is Student Health Services located in Nordenberg Hall. One of the biggest benefits of SHS is that students aren’t charged a co-pay because it’s included in the Wellness fee. On its website, SHS says it is now accepting health insurance as a form of payment. This is a great opportunity for some out-of-state students to have accessible healthcare, however, they do not accept all health insurance.   

Sometimes my physical health isn’t what’s bothering me. Instead, it’s my mental health, and I feel that professors need to understand this more. I’m not going to the doctor’s every time I don’t feel well, especially when the only medicine that would help is taking a break. That’s not realistic. Sometimes I just need a day off to relax and recover from stress, but I can’t do that when I’m worried about how that might affect my grade. 

Last year, students typically had a Zoom/Panopto option if we couldn’t go to class. We were able to tune into class from home or watch the recorded lectures later on. Most classes don’t offer this option anymore. This makes it especially difficult for students who need a mental health day off, and are now falling behind in class. 

Recording lectures is also a good way for students to review class materials and help with their learning. This is a great feature for people with disabilities too, as it makes class content more accessible. 

We should not have to choose between taking care of ourselves and upholding good grades. 

For example, Julia Haber, a junior psychology major, recalls when she flew to New York last year for stomach surgery related to Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. Haber said her professors were not accommodating and, “they didn’t excuse me for classes at all.” 

She said she was still expected to complete all of her assignments even when “high as balls on Vicodin.” Haber also said, “They were giving me so much homework, they didn’t give me any extensions on deadlines, and basically just expected me to deal with it. They weren’t understanding.”

In extreme cases like Haber’s, absences should be excused. But it shouldn’t take an extreme case for professors to show students more empathy. We are all human and sometimes we just need a break from constant hustling. 

While attendance can affect how students perform in class, it should not play a part in their grades. Professors should not punish students for not showing up to class, especially if they give a valid excuse for missing. Punishing absences reinforces the idea that grades are more important than taking care of yourself. This is already something many students struggle with. 

At this point, we need to normalize taking mental health days off from school and regular breaks from work because it’s the healthiest option. This hustle culture that we’re living in right now is creating massive burnout. This is extremely common among college students, who try to balance school, social life and work. 

When students are burnt out and unable to perform to the best of their ability academically, professors also struggle. The pandemic affected all of us — students and teachers alike.  We only see one aspect of their life, but they have lives outside the classroom too. During the pandemic, teachers experienced a high rate of burnout, among other challenges. However, they still shouldn’t put unfair expectations on students.

Allowing students days off to recharge with no academic repercussions would improve their performance in class. Not only would this be beneficial for Pitt students and their learning, it would also reflect positively on the professor.

Kelly Xiong writes primarily about personal health and wellness. Write to her at [email protected].