Hannah Maier: Faculty sensitivity training

Thursday, March 17, 2016 - 4:13pm

When I was eight, I nearly drowned in my neighbor’s pool. It was one of the first weeks of the summer season, and my friend and I were sitting cross-legged on her sun deck, giggling in our matching heart-shaped sunglasses. We watched her brother as he removed the blue tarp that covered their in-ground pool. We had bothered him to take us swimming all morning and, reluctantly, he finally gave in. After he finished opening the pool for us to use, he ran inside the house to grab something. Without waiting for him to come back outside to give us permission to swim, as any impatient 8-year-old would, I slipped feet first into the shallow end. Unfortunately, I hadn’t realized that the “shallow end” was really 6 feet deep.

I was able to keep myself on the surface of the water by kicking and screaming for what felt like an eternity. My throat tightened and I gasped for air in short breaths. I became exhausted trying to fight the water in an attempt to stay afloat. In that moment, I forgot where I was, what I was doing; I only knew fear. Apparently my friend’s brother could sense my distress through the fear that showed in my wide eyes, so he jumped into the pool and pulled me out.

Afterward, I sat on the side of the pool, scared to go back in. I hoped to never experience that feeling again, and I stayed away from pools for a while.

I’ll admit that my drowning incident hadn’t really crossed my mind as I blossomed into adulthood. Honestly, the only kind of drowning I had on my mind during my first year of college was drowning in debt. Fortunately, prior to this point in my life, I had learned how to swim. I even joined the high school’s varsity swim team, even though I wasn’t that great. I hadn’t thought about the accident again until my freshman year of college.

This semester, I was sitting in Spanish class and everything was, more or less, going smoothly. My instructor caught me off guard when she called me out to answer a question — I had been closely studying the hour hand on the clock behind her instead of paying attention to the discussion. This happened often: She always called me out when she knew that my mind was drifting to another place.

She repeated her question, and suddenly, all of the feelings that I experienced during my 8-year-old drowning experience came flooding back to me. My chest started to tighten and my breath began to shorten. I became dizzy, nauseous and I felt displaced from reality. I couldn’t answer her question. For the rest of the class I sat in silence.

I went over what could have caused the panic attack that I just had, and I came to the conclusion that my inability to answer her question was its driving source. Even though having a panic attack over something that insignificant seemed like an overreaction, I couldn’t prevent myself from feeling as upset and disconnected as I did. It just happened — I had no control; I couldn’t stop it.

Afterward, embarrassed, I went to office hours to explain to my instructor what had happened. I felt that I needed to explain to her why I didn’t participate for the rest of the class. I walked into her office resting my palm against the doorway, resisting the urge to collapse from light-headedness and exhaustion. I sat down in the chair that was nearest to her desk. I began to sputter out an apology.

This normally doesn’t happen, I just felt sick. I’m on a new medication for anxiety… 

I could tell that what I had just said had turned into a pile of incomprehensible word vomit by the blank expression on her face. I could tell that she couldn’t really understand what I was saying, so I collected myself the best that I could and gave my apology another go:

You see, I didn’t participate … I couldn’t participate ... because I had a panic attack. It normally doesn’t happen, but I just switched medications, so maybe that’s why … it won’t happen again. 

She tilted her head, rested her chin on her hand and gave a slight nod of approval.

I thought that I was in the clear. A moment passed before she spoke.

“Medication…?” She questioned accusatively. “You don’t need medication; you need a walk through the park. Have you ever been to the Arb…?”

After half-heartedly contributing to the rest of our short conversation, I left her office reflecting on what she had said:

1) To answer her condescending question, yes, of course I had been to the Arb.

2) Even if a quick walk through the park was all I needed to feel like myself again, was she in the position to give me advice on how to fix my health issue? Was it right for her to assume my problem as her responsibility to handle, even though she didn’t have the appropriate medical training to do so?

I came to her in a time of vulnerability, not to ask for advice, but to seek support and possibly kindness and understanding. She swept my concerns aside and was extremely patronizing and disrespectful.

Angrily, I shared my story with friends. I learned that other people had experienced similar problems with their professors. One of my friends explained that her professor’s lack of respect when dealing with her situation discouraged her from seeking help. This proved to be deleterious to her comfort and success in the course.

Teaching staff at the University of Michigan should be required to partake in more extensive sensitivity training. Staff should be effectively trained to know how to communicate with students who suffer from mental health disorders. They should be trained to recognize common symptoms and they should know how to intervene appropriately, or they shouldn’t be teaching.

It’s hard for a student to learn if they feel that they aren’t being respected. No one deserves to do poorly in a class because their illness isn’t taken seriously. Instructors should work on their communication skills with students and they should understand that some students might need flexibility with certain course requirements. Professionals at the University should be educated on students with disabilities’ rights and services so they can better facilitate the success of students with disabilities. No student deserves to drown because there isn’t someone willing to pull them out of the water.

Hannah Maier can be reached at hannamai@umich.edu.