A response to professor Gail Hornstein’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education


Dear professor Hornstein:

I’m here to help.

I’m here to help you understand what your students might be going through when they request accommodations for your class. I’m here to help you put yourself in the shoes of some ‘punk’ student who averts her gaze from time-to-time and might get a little sweaty at the prospect of explaining her mental health to a person in a position of power. I’m here to help explain, to the best of my ability, why a good portion of campus has its hackles up over your article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

First, I’d like to walk you through my typical panic attack. Everybody experiences theirs a little differently, but in my case it starts off with a cold sweat. Next, my vision blurs. My knees weaken, and sometimes I literally cannot stay on my feet. The hyperventilation starts. Sometimes I throw up. Sometimes every single one of my muscles seem to be atrophied and screaming in pain at the same time. This isn’t a rare occurrence for me. This is something I live with and struggle with and need to dedicate a massive amount of energy to keeping under control. Imagine constantly worrying that at any second (especially in times of stress), a car horn might start blaring continuously in your ear — it makes it a little tricky to concentrate on an exam.

This is why I sought out accommodations from AccessAbility Services. And it was not easy. Our school’s accommodations system is slow and understaffed. It took months for my request to even go through, and longer before I could meet with a staff member to discuss what sort of help might be given. And after all that, do you know what my requested accommodation was? A quieter room for test-taking. That’s all. 

So imagine me now: I expect I look a lot like your student “Lee.” I have a “punk” haircut and am partial to my leather jacket. As a professor of psychology, I’m sure you’re no stranger to the stigma around mental illness, so try to imagine why I might avert my gaze from time to time or speak in a flat tone. Please, try to picture being a twenty-year-old person speaking to someone with the power to flunk them, and ask yourself if you would not be nervous in this situation. Perhaps, were I in Lee’s position, I might be fighting a panic attack at that very moment. 

And then you ask what I do to “calm down.”

Professor, you are not my therapist. You are not my parent and you are not my friend or confidante. I am coming to you out of pure necessity, going out of my way to make sure everything is in place for me to succeed in your course. I want to learn. I want to understand. I do not want to walk you through the years and years of panic-attack-curbing techniques I have tried, because none of them work. I am on medication and I am a successful student, but sometimes that is not enough. And, despite what you may believe, mental illnesses sometimes have physical consequences that might prevent students from coming to and focusing in class, much in the same way a broken leg might. 

One last thing: most of the time, I don’t even use my accommodations. It acts as a safety net, calming my anxiety about test taking with the knowledge that, if necessary, I can work in a quieter space. Amazingly, having this safety net actually cuts down on the amount of test-related panic attacks I have. This tiny change in how I interact with your class makes me able to focus on what you are teaching and put my best foot forward on your exams.

I am not surprised “Lee” did not come back to your office hours — I certainly wouldn’t have. Your idea of “supportive connections” is condescending, judgmental, unhelpful, and quite frankly horrifying. 

I’m here to help, professor. And so are accommodations, whether you like them or not. 

Mount Holyoke, we can do better. We have to do better.