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Diary of a “successful” Carleton student: Why we need to broaden our understanding of mental illness and academic accommodations

September 17, 2018 (first term at Carleton): I love this so much. I am thriving. 

October 3, 2018: This is really challenging, but that’s why I’m here… 

November 4, 2018: Everyone is grinding all day every day, right? And I’m doing well in my classes, so I must be doing this right. 

November 5, 2018: Turns out none of my friends “grind” quite like I do (i.e., as inefficiently as I do). Turns out the reading that took me four hours took everyone else in the class about two. 

November 8, 2018: I’m just really thorough with my assignments. Nothing wrong with that. I’m a good student. 

January 21, 2019: Had another panic attack. Took my emergency med, barely got through the bio exam, and crashed.  

April 9, 2019: FINALLY finished that chapter and checked the clock. Wished I hadn’t. 

May 17, 2019: Attended a Disability Services talk. Considered reaching out to get some sort of accommodations. Remembered I didn’t have a learning disability. Didn’t reach out. 

March 11, 2020: Could not even imagine getting through finals. Called the Dean of Students Office on the verge of tears. Got an appointment a few hours later with Dean Baggot.

Later on March 11, 2020: Asked Dean Baggot for extensions on my final papers. (Well, I did a lot more crying than asking. I wasn’t even embarrassed.) He was very supportive and granted the extensions. 

April 4, 2020: Spring term is about to start. I don’t know if I can do this again. I reach out to Disability Services. 

April 5, 2020: Spoke on the phone with Chris Dallager who encouraged me to submit a First Time Accommodation Request

April 6, 2020: I’m hesitant and indecisive… and exhausted. Can’t decide if it’s worth putting in the energy just to not get any accommodations. 

April 7, 2020: Realized I was desperate. Filled out the form. 

April 13, 2020: Reached out to my provider to send documentation to Disability Services. 

April 29, 2020: Received an email from Disability Services confirming receipt of accommodations (and confirming that I really did need help, and could’ve gotten it, all along). 

May 21, 2020: I still have not used these accommodations. I don’t know if it’s because of the nature of online classes or if this mandatory S/CR/NC (and global pandemic) has finally granted me the space to put my mental health first… 

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All of this is to say: PLEASE do not be me. Please do not delay asking for and receiving the help you need. If you are struggling academically, consider reaching out to Disability Services even if you do not consider yourself disabled. Disability Services not only supports students with learning disabilities and ADHD but also students with psychiatric or psychological and medical or physical conditions. (This topic was discussed in a recent Carletonian article about the Disability Services office.) Regarding the office’s coming name change, I know that some Carls identify with the term “disability,” and I respect that, but I also know that the name “Disability Services” can be a barrier that prevents eligible individuals from reaching out, like it did for me.

I also want to communicate that my experience is not what success looks like, and we need to stop being told that it is. Many seem to forget that an “impressive” GPA is not always cause for celebration. At a place like Carleton, where many students find it incredibly difficult to take care of themselves and keep up with their classes, a 4.0 GPA can actually be cause for concern. It can indicate a choice to place academics above all else, including one’s own well-being. When Carleton puts my name on the Dean’s List, when my family applauds my “hard work,” they’re telling me that I’m doing something right and that I should keep it up. 

This results-driven narrative of success, and the behaviors it motivates in myself and my peers, prevented me from realizing I needed help for so long. It seemed like everyone around me was sacrificing aspects of their well-being for the sake of academic performance. As a community, we must work on promoting healthier norms and celebrating the success in prioritizing ourselves.

Additionally, it’s important we understand that academic “success” and academic struggles are not mutually exclusive. This is obvious to some, but I think it’s worth saying that a high GPA does not necessarily suggest that one doesn’t need accommodations or some extra support. For me, this looks like assignments that take hours longer than most of my peers. It’s wearing earplugs and moving my desk to face a wall during exams because my brain stops working when I hear pencils scratching or see people moving. It’s not understanding what I’m being taught until I can make my own visual for it. It’s suffering through classes with anxiety and migraines and having to go to office hours to go through the material again. It’s having a panic attack that prevents me from doing schoolwork the rest of the day and having to work overtime the next couple of days to make up for it. I’m sharing all of this in an attempt to communicate that everyone’s struggles and everyone’s needs look different. And that many of those struggles are less obvious, especially in those considered successful by our grading system. 

As I reflect on the challenges facing every individual during COVID-19, I realize that this is the first time many of our professors have told us that we should be putting our well-being first. As wonderfully supportive as that is, let’s not have a pandemic be the only reason to take care of ourselves and check in on each other. And let’s not abandon that position once we get back on campus. 

We will always be humans before we are students, and we cannot sustainably succeed as students without first ensuring our well-being. That being said, now is a great time to take care of ourselves and develop habits for supporting our well-being. Check out the Mental Health Awareness Collective’s (MHAC) quarantine activity ideas, and consider reaching out to an affordable online therapy service like BetterHelp

Additionally, here are some resources for those in crisis: 

  • Text HOME to 741741 to reach a Crisis Counselor 24/7

Finally, if you’re interested in encouraging understanding and openness about mental health at Carleton, consider joining MHAC (Mental Health Awareness Collective). We are meeting this term (and possibly into the summer) and would love to see some new faces. Please feel free to reach out to me for more information. Be well.

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