Lies or Excuses?

Mental illness is real. It’s time that professors started treating it that way.

This week I had a cold. Not a fake cold, but like an actual cold where I had to take Tylenol and everything. I ended up having to take two days off of school to recover, and all I had to do to save my grades was email my professor a doctor’s note and a short explanation. But taking a sick day wasn’t always this straightforward.

Most of the colds I had sophomore year weren’t actually colds. They were depression. Taking a sick day therefore meant deciding what kind of explanation, if any, I was planning to give. On the one hand, I could tell the truth and pray to god that my professor was someone both knowledgeable of and sympathetic to mental illnesses. On the other hand, I could supplement the purposefully nondescript doctor’s note with any innocuous lie that I felt like telling — sore throat, fever, allergic reaction — you name it. The options were endless.

So in sophomore year, I mainly told lies. It was just easier — so much easier than any explanation of depression I could fit in a reasonably lengthed email. When I told people I was down with a fever, it triggered immediate sympathy and an immediate “Of course you won’t be able to finish this assignment on time!” That’s the beauty of physical ailments. They are more or less universal experiences: easy to describe, easy to imagine, and easy to excuse.

Yet, over time I grew sick of these small lies. Even the white lie of just being “sick” bothered me. I knew I was entitled to medical confidentiality and that this cover-up was harmless, but I couldn’t help feeling that I wasn’t being true to myself, and certainly not standing up to the stigma I was trying to combat among friends and even acquaintances. I therefore made the decision to start telling the full, uncensored truth.

In a streak of hopeful naivety, I almost expected to be congratulated. I thought that maybe my professors would applaud my willingness to be honest, that their academic prowess would make it easy for them to trust in science over the folklore that mental illness is “all in your head,” that they would extend me the same sympathy they had extended when I told them it was all a fever.


I was wrong.

Sympathy immediately changed into skepticism. It didn’t matter that I had a doctor’s note or that I had pasted a literal piece of my heart into each email. The replies that were once along the lines of “Get better soon!” and “Don’t worry about coming to class tomorrow!”, suddenly became filled with a dead “When can you get the assignment in by.”

Because the most sadistic personality trait of depression is that you can have a near-suicidal crisis one night and show up the next morning looking absolutely fine. With no cough, no cast, no scar, no fanfare to testify that, yes, your mind really had dealt serious damage to itself, and yes, it was was so awful you had to take the day off to recuperate.

Harvard may have a stellar counseling and mental health service, and it may have all the institutional mechanisms needed for granting much-needed extensions and sick days, but the belittling of mental health issues by professors continues to be a terrifying reality — especially when a quarter of ushave been diagnosed or treated for a mental illness in the past year, and one-tenth of us have gone so far as to attempt suicide.

It’s therefore high time that Harvard professors began taking mental health seriously — as seriously as they take the average cold. My depression was not a lie, nor was it an excuse for academic incompetence. All I needed was time to heal.

Elizabeth Y. Sun ’19, a former Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is a Government concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.