Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Anxious and Absent

It seems that this semester I have a surprisingly large number of students who are absent a lot for anxiety issues.  I think I don't quite get it, don't quite really understand how difficult their level of anxiety is.  I just want to say, "get your rear in gear and get to class."  But I don't, because I think their issues are way more difficult than I comprehend.

I admit I've sort of lost track of how often their absences are self-reported anxiety.  And how often they're absent without saying anything to me about it.

I have a fairly strict absence policy in my syllabus.  Three unexcused (like official excuses) are okay, and then starting with number four there's a grade penalty.  But I can't figure out how to handle the anxious students when I think they're probably anxious even if they don't email to tell me that.

And what about the other student who've missed classes?  How do I handle them?

And the "I don't feel good" students who miss more than three?  I'm not going to tell students they feel good; how could I?  But I'm also not especially sympathetic about hangovers. 

And then there's the depression problem.  One student told me they were depressed because it was nearing the anniversary of the death of a loved one.  I can see that might make things difficult.  But I really don't know what to do if the person's absent a bunch.

We have presentations around here to help us understand when students have mental health problems, and to try to convince us to be sympathetic and helpful.  But they never really get to what would actually be helpful.  (One of the folks who came to talk to us suggested that it would be a radical new idea to give students a couple of days when they could not come to class if they weren't feeling well; but the three unexcused absences thing is something people were doing back in the bronze age when I was a student.  So not really new or radical.)

I'm no counselor, but I do try to convince students to make an appointment.  And when they tell me nothing's open for three or four weeks?  What do I do?

I need to have a better sense of when what a student needs is to be told to get their rear in gear and when they need something else. 

And I wonder how they're going to manage with a job?  I can't imagine my employer would be especially sympathetic if I suddenly started taking days and days off because I'm not feeling well or am anxious.  I'd run out of sick leave and then?  (My colleagues are amazingly good at stepping up and filling in for folks who are ill or have family responsibilities.  But I think patience would run thin for anxiety or depression problems.)


  1. I've had this a lot with one of my classes this semester as well. I hadn't had a student crying in my office for years and this year I've been through an entire kleenex box (only mild hyperbole).

    Our school has a whole system for mental health, and I only allow absences to be excused if they put themselves in the system to get help (and to make things official). Usually they come to me before they're in the system, but this year I've had an unusually high number who are already in the system.

    It won't do anything in the short term, but you can call up the mental health office and ask them who you can complain to to see that they get more resources so that they can get appointments to students quicker. It sounds like they're understaffed and admin might be more likely to address it in the long term if they hear complaints from other constituents. Or possibly it's something your chair could bring up to the powers that be.

  2. I like nicoleandmaggie's suggestions. It sounds as though they need to fund more counselors and need to hear about it.

  3. I don’t remember attendance taking much in college back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Is this a thing now? In small seminar classes absences would be noticed, I suppose, but I don’t remember much in the way of formal policy.

  4. We're required to record attendance and to report certain absences, mostly for financial aid stuffs.

  5. I understand why you have to record attendance, but you don't have to require it for grades.
    If you still want to incentivize it for students capable of planning their hangovers (i.e. people who can get their rears in gears if properly motivated), you can make it explicit that you will bump students a grade fraction (e.g. B to B+) if they have good attendance, come to office hours and/or communicate with you.

    At the end of the day, you'll never be 100% accurate which message is needed to which student. The consequences of getting it wrong are significant, but probably worse if you pick "rear in gear" when you need "I understand mourning a loved one is difficult let me know what I can do to support you in this class".

    Also, anxiety and depression problems *are* illnesses. If your colleagues would be sympathetic to a broken leg, but not the former, that is because they are poorly informed on what mental illness *is*. Or possibly they themselves mentally ill and don't want to seek treatment, and they minimize them as a coping mechanism.

  6. I require that mine go to the health center if they want to make up graded work - same as for if they'd tripped or had any other physical injury. At the end of the day I don't want to be in the business of judging whose medical excuse is good enough- I am not qualified! - so I turf it off to actual medical professionals, who are very willing to send a medical excuse. I encourage Very Anxious Students to get medical help by saying that if they are too anxious to function that is a real problem that they can't reason themselves out of and maybe it would help to talk to the counseling staff. Ultimately I treat it as a real illness, which is something I personally cannot solve for them.

    I think my number one non-content time drain is counseling anxious students on how not to panic during tests (after I've encouraged them to see a counselor!). Semi-fortunately a lawsuit has just dramatically increased the number of counseling staff.

  7. I like the health center idea for making up work. But if someone has a cold, they may feel horrid, and we don't want them to come share the germs with us, but it's not really a health center sort of thing, either...