Jon Cogburn over at NewAPPS has drawn my attention to this story over at "Moontime Warrior" on how one philosophy professor responded to a grad student's confiding in her. In brief, the story is this:
Last term, I confided in a professor that I was struggling with anxiety attacks and depression. She seemed understanding.
A few weeks after the class ended, I learned that she had brought the issue up at an informal departmental gathering, telling grad students and professors that anxiety is often an “excuse” used by students who want an easy ride.
Cogburn also links to Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins' courageous and graceful discussion of her own struggles with anxiety, and discusses a number of important issues in his post.
I would like to chime in and say that I think there is an important -- and neglected -- issue here that goes well beyond issues of mental health and wellness (though these are very important issues). I've made no secret that I struggled mightily at times in graduate school. Long story short, at one point in my graduate career I think I faced a "perfect storm" of sorts: a rather long and painful of a long-term relationship that had more or less defined my personal life for several years, disappointment at having to move to a new graduate program (thanks to all of my favorite professors at Syracuse--John Hawthorne, Ted Sider, Dean Zimmerman, and Brian Weatherson--all being hired away), having to re-take classes at Arizona on things I had already studied, leaving close friends behind, etc. Suffice it to say, I didn't deal with all of the issues I was facing as well as I could have. I was young, distracted by personal issues I had never dealt with before, and finally, philosophically insecure for the first time as a result of my distraction (in all honesty, I didn't do the greatest work when I got to Arizona). And so I pulled away from my department. I wasn't as social or as friendly as I should have been, or indeed, as I would have been if there wasn't so much stuff bothering me.
Now, I ultimately made it through those issues, in large part because I finally swallowed my pride asked for help. Although I never really told anyone of the various issues I was dealing with, I finally approach a few professors in my graduate program and asked them what I should do to get back on track philosophically. And their help did wonders. Here, though, is the thing. I suspect that I could have dealt with things far better, and far earlier, if I had felt comfortable approaching faculty. The fact is, I didn't feel comfortable -- and so I avoided it for several years. I don't think this was anyone's fault at Arizona. In my experience, it's common practice in academia to seperate academic from personal matters, and faculty in general are kind of oblivious to how intimidating they are, and to the reasons why grad students may be afraid to approach them (our future professional prospects are, after all, very much in their hands). And, of course, the above story about the graduate student confiding in her professor doesn't help. If students cannot trust their concerns to be kept in confidence, or dealt with in a caring and respectful rather than a dismissive manner, students will be apt to do what I did: keep things a secret -- to their own detriment.
For these reasons, I would like to propose the following. I would like to propose that graduate departments draft official policies encouraging students to share their concerns with professors, and laying out clear guidelines for how faculty are expected to treat those concerns. Although I expect some may respond to this by saying, "We are professors, not friends, mental-health counselors, or baby-sitters", let me just say this. I think it is in the interest of professors, and graduate programs, to engage in such practices. No graduate program is well-served by its students failing, or struggling, as a result of fear of approaching faculty. Every program has an interest in its students' success, and as such, issues of human decency aside, every program -- and every professor -- has reasons to "be there" for their students, at least within certain bounds (note: I do think this final caveat is important. Surely there should be limits. It is not our place to respond to and/or "solve" every student problem. My point is merely that there should be some policies that encourage students to seek our professors when they feel some help or understanding is necessary).