Physical health is a valid excuse for missing class — so why isn’t mental health?

Student mental health is exacerbated by the stressful atmosphere of college, and while most college campuses offer resources to help students with their mental health, these can often fall short, and UMBC is no exception. The Counseling Center, who was not available for comment, offers extremely short-term resources and mostly acts as a referral service, leaving students high and dry to handle professors and the often discriminatory attendance policies on their own.

For students who are struggling, therapy and medication can be helpful. But when it comes to university policies on absence, some classes distinguish between excused and unexcused absences. The excused absences must be verified by a professional, usually a doctor’s note. For some courses, missing a certain amount of classes (whether excused or unexcused) can result in a grade deduction or even a failure of the course. And this kind of policy specifically hurts students with mental illnesses.

When a person suffers from a mental illness, they can have days when it is a struggle to even get out of bed, or days when they feel constantly on the edge of a breakdown. It’s just as harmful and debilitating as a physical illness, but while a student with the flu could get a doctor’s note explaining that they have the flu and should not go to class, a student having a bad mental health day might not be able to “legally” miss class. Situations like these put students in an incredibly difficult place: either they miss class and fall behind in their classwork, causing their grade to suffer, or they go to class and risk causing their mental health to suffer even more.

This is something that needs to be addressed in attendance policies. Students who genuinely feel unable to go to class due to a diagnosed mental illness should not have to suffer the consequences of an unexcused absence or a zero on an in-class-only assignment just because they cannot go to UHS and get a doctor’s note for a mental health day. Though perhaps they could ask their therapist or psychiatrist for a note excusing them from class, not all students who have a diagnosed mental illness see a therapist regularly; even if they did, they may not be able to get a note excusing them from class without making an appointment or checkup, which could take days.

Though with a situation this complicated, there is no simple solution, there is a possible middle ground between the current attendance policy and a completely free “honor code” attendance policy. Professors should build in a certain number of “mental health days” into their attendance policies, and students can use those as excused absences, no questions asked. If a student exceeds (or thinks they may exceed) this number of mental health days, they should be able to sit down and talk to their professor about their mental health and work out a solution among them. Since mental health affects everyone differently, there should not be one single overarching policy regarding mental health and missing class.

Howevers, mental health should not be used as a completely free pass: a student with severe anxiety who enrolls in a public speaking or a theatre class should not expect that they can avoid all of the performance assignments and still succeed in the class. But this can and should be addressed with open and honest communication with the professor.

Some may say that it is not a professor’s job to care about a student’s mental health — but that is frankly ridiculous. Professors are human beings, as are their students, and common courtesy and respect should be mutual. If a student is brave enough to disclose to their professor that their mental health is so bad that they cannot go to class on a particular day, or they need an extension on an assignment, the professor should respect that.

Professors should be willing and able to offer some assistance to struggling students — whether that be an extension, allowing a makeup of a quiz, excusing an absence, or otherwise. And colleges should open the dialogue on mental health and how it affects students’ scholastic capabilities so that students who struggle with mental illness are not in the uncomfortable position of putting their grades above their sanity.