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Is it acceptable for a person to be a researcher if she/he has a mental disorders or illnesses? Are there laws that either prohibit or not prohibit mentally ill to perform research? Caveats?

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    Mental illness is common everywhere. who.int/whr/2001/media_centre/press_release/en – Anonymous Physicist Sep 29 '20 at 4:53
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    Define mental illness? The DSM-V lists autism on a spectrum with many subtypes, but there's enough researchers in the 'neurodiversity' field that are solidly on various parts of that spectrum. Just like 'gender dysphoria' is a 'mental issue'(?), transsexuality etc --- not illnesses. – user3445853 Sep 29 '20 at 19:08
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    Relevant comic – Punintended Sep 30 '20 at 19:57
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    I'm a bit surprised (and offended) by this question. What's the background to ask this? Mental illnesses vary greatly, and I have the understanding that the most common ones are things like depression and anxiety, which don't really make anyone dangerous to others and may be hard for an outsider to even notice. Especially in research, the tests, hypothesis, results, etc. should be verifiable and should be the main point, not the people. Honestly, this feels a bit like going back 100 or so years and asking if black people, or (god forbid) women are or should be allowed perform research. – ilkkachu Oct 1 '20 at 18:28
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    If the question is indeed regarding a conrete law, you should probably ask it explicitely for a country. What may be legal in one country can be illegal in another. - And for explicit questions about current law in a certain country the law-stackexchange may be the better page. – Falco Oct 2 '20 at 8:43

13 Answers 13

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Let's turn this around and ask the converse. How could you tell if a researcher has a mental illness or similar disorder?

Modern understanding of mental illness has moved towards a recognition that humans have an extremely wide range of functional cognitive and behavioral patterns. This means that most mental illness exists on a spectrum, where the boundary to illness is quite fuzzy, is only considered an illness if there is a persistent impact on a person's ability to function.

So if a researcher is producing work that is passing peer review in reasonable publication venues, then they are clearly functioning at a level sufficient to conduct scientific research, and that research is being found to be acceptable. That's it. There is no other scientific bar.

Some levels of mental illness will, of course, make it difficult or impossible for a researcher to produce acceptable research. For example, a person suffering from severe dementia would likely have a difficult time accomplishing any task in their life, including research. This isn't about saying it's not acceptable for any given person to conduct research, however, but rather that some illnesses will inhibit a person from actually accomplishing the task.

In certain niche cases requiring certification, significant impact from a mental illness on a person's trustworthiness may also preemptively bar a person from conducting research on subjects requiring that certification. For example, a person with schizophrenia not responding to treatment might not be able to work in a medical field requiring the handling of confidential patient information or at an organization that requires a security clearance.

In history, unfortunately, we find a very different situation. Until surprisingly recently, for example, homosexuality was considered a mental disorder, and many people were denied work on the basis of their sexual preferences. I believe this remains the case in some repressive nations today.

Bottom line: in any modern liberal society, mental illness is no bar to research in and of itself, though it may become a barrier if it affects ones' ability to function as a researcher.

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    This answer is basically a lot fuzzy feelings, very little fact. There already are professions where a mental illness disqualifies you immediately, and you are required to go regular checkups with a psychiatrists aka pilots. "How could you even know if a researcher has a mental illness or similar disorder?" is not a novel problem, it's already solved. – Davor Sep 29 '20 at 14:58
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    @Davor "This answer is basically a lot fuzzy feelings, very little fact" - sorry, what? I don't see much, if any, feelings expressed in this answer (apart from a few words here and there like "unfortunately" and "surprisingly", which seem perfectly fine). Most if it consists of objective statements. Now those may or may not be actually be facts, but if that's in question it becomes an issue of pointing out the specific false statements or asking that they be backed up. Although backing up the claim that something doesn't exist would be quite hard. – NotThatGuy Sep 29 '20 at 20:08
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – cag51 Oct 2 '20 at 16:16
  • This does not say anything about what is "allowed" and therefore it is not an answer. – Anonymous Physicist Oct 18 '20 at 9:00
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The details will no doubt vary between countries, but I would be surprised if anywhere has a blanket prohibition on 'mentally ill' people 'performing research' - apart from anything else, both terms are rather loosely-defined.

However, there are almost certainly a range of considerations that might affect whether people with certain conditions can easily work in a given research area. For example, research in some areas might require security clearance or special licenses, and medical history may be a factor that is relevant to whether these can be obtained/maintained.

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A blanket ban would almost certainly fall foul of disability protections and/or patient confidentiality requirements, and so could not legally be implemented

Employers (including research institutes) are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of disability (unless it can be shown to make the person genuinely unable to perform the role in question) and, in fact, are obligated to make reasonable adjustments to enable a disabled person to perform the role, when requested. As such, if someone has a mental illness severe enough to qualify as a disability, they could not be prohibited from performing research in general (although people with certain illnesses might not be able to perform research in certain specific areas, i.e. those requiring specific clearance, or dealing with vulnerable people)

Additionally, people are not generally required to disclose medical information to their employer, their medical records cannot be obtained without their consent, and people cannot be discriminated against for refusing to provide such medical records. This means, people with a diagnosis, but no need for adjustments, would not need to identify themselves as mentally ill to any research institute and so could not be prohibited from performing research

Lastly, many people suffering from mental illnesses lack any diagnosis so there are likely people with mental illnesses who couldn't identify themselves as such to their employer to be discriminated against, even if they wanted to

Obviously, the exact details will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but the existence of disability as a protected class, and medical confidentiality is pretty universal in the developed world

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    If you're so insufficiently ill that you function normally, are you actually ill? – RonJohn Sep 29 '20 at 18:19
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    @RonJohn - yes. There are many conditions that would be considered illnesses that look, to all intents and purposes, "normal". People cope with, or mask (intentionally or otherwise) conditions that are clinically diagnosable and, sometimes, treatable. – Dancrumb Sep 29 '20 at 19:05
  • What research with vulnerable people do you have in mind that might be restricted? I can't think of anything off the top of my head. – Azor Ahai -him- Sep 29 '20 at 20:38
  • @AzorAhai--hehim neither can I off the top of my head, but it seems plausible that some combinations of illness and vulnerability might lead to issues and I believe it was mentioned in other answers – Tristan Sep 30 '20 at 9:08
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    @RonJohn Yes. Statistically, several of your co-workers are masking one or both of depression & anxiety right now (about 1 in 5 in the US.) You can be a literal superhero at work and still very sick - the criteria for most mental disorders is "...to an extent that causes significant distress and/or meaningfully interferes with work, family, OR social activities." You can have a panic attack or contemplate suicide several times a day in an average office job, and still get all your work done. – SirTechSpec Sep 30 '20 at 19:42
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In the United States, the ADA covers anyone with “physical or mental impairments that substantially limit one or more major life activities,​ such as seeing, hearing, speaking, walking or breathing.” It is illegal to discriminate against people with these conditions in hiring if they are qualified. From the FAQ on the EEOC website about the ADA: "A qualified individual with a disability is a person who meets legitimate skill, experience, education, or other requirements of an employment position that he or she holds or seeks."

This means in most cases it is illegal to prohibit someone from doing research if that person falls under the vague term "mentally ill" as it is colloquially used.

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I have never heard of any restrictions. In fact, in many countries it may even be illegal to ask someone about mental illnesses before hiring them. (A strong "crazy" vibe in the interview process might deter potential employers, though.)

Also, the very nature of science is to abstract away the humanity of the researcher as far as possible. It shouldn't matter whether you're depressed, manic, autistic or whatever else it might be - if you have interesting insights that allow for testable predictions, or you can perform experiments that are reproducible, and the referees of your papers and other researchers find value in the work you do, why should you not do research?

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  • "It shouldn't matter" - yes, of course, but hiring people and referees are all human. It shouldn't also matter if a worker is a man or woman or black or white or disabled, but (at least in my reality) it does.. – user111388 Sep 29 '20 at 10:00
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    A pedophile may probably not be accepted by some hiring people, even if it does not have anything to do with research. – user111388 Sep 29 '20 at 10:02
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    While I generally agree with this answer "the very nature of science is to abstract away the humanity of the researcher as far as possible" is very misleading. There's no denying that research is fundamentally a social activity and that various conditions can impede the necessary social interaction (this includes both mental and physical illnesses, as well as additional things). This does not preclude doing research for anyone but it does impose additional hurdles for some people. – Denis Nardin Sep 29 '20 at 19:37
  • In fact, a lot of fields are pushing back from "abstracting away the humanity." While it may not be relevant in e.g. particle physics, a lot of research on humans has been worsened by people not taking into account their own biases and those of society. I haven't downvoted, but I think this answer would be improved by removing that sentence. – Azor Ahai -him- Sep 29 '20 at 20:35
  • @AzorAhai--hehim: I hope I don't misunderstand your comment. If by "pushing back" you mean the recent postmodernism-infused efforts to paint science as a "tool of oppression" by "white supremacy" that needs to be "decolonized" or at least augmented by "other ways of knowing" - that is equivalent to giving up the foundation of what makes science work. It is profoundly dangerous and should be pushed back on, hard. Otherwise, "taking into account one's own biases" and being critical of one's conclusions is not new - it's precisely what any good scientist should have been doing all along. – Richard Metzler Sep 30 '20 at 5:47
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It's not only the case that mentally ill people are not generally prohibited from doing research* (as explained very well in @jakebeal's excellent answer). To counter a separate apparent misconception in the question that has nothing to do with mental health, I think it's a bit misleading to say that anyone is "allowed" to be a researcher. What I mean is that academic and scientific research are a much more open and democratic type of profession than many others. One does not need a license or to be a member of some professional society to be a researcher. One does not necessarily need to have a PhD or other advanced degree. One can be mentally ill, physically ill or disabled, a legal minor, even a convicted criminal. The scientific community will generally be quite accepting of high quality work coming from anyone, as long as the work itself was not done unethically or illegally.

To summarize, the idea that you need to ask someone for permission to be a researcher because you suffer from some medical condition or other special circumstance strikes me as kind of absurd, and I think paints a distorted picture of the true reality of how academia works.

* Setting aside some very specific exclusions having to do with research with connections to military defense or other similarly sensitive areas, where a history of sufficiently serious mental problems may be disqualifying in certain situations.

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    "One does not need a license or to be a member of some professional society to be a researcher" Maybe not, but it helps. Getting a PhD is regarded as a requirement for jobs involving research for a reason. – nick012000 Oct 2 '20 at 6:39
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    @nick012000 a PhD is not a license or a membership of a professional society, so I’m not sure what you’re getting at. It’s also not always a strict requirement for getting a job as a researcher (as discussed in various questions on academia.se). And in any case OP asked about “being allowed to perform research” not about having any specific kind of job. Academic research is frequently performed and published by graduate students (who essentially have entry level jobs as researchers), undergraduate students, people working in industry, and many other people who don’t hold advanced degrees. – Dan Romik Oct 2 '20 at 6:49
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    @DanRomik, it is a question of theory and practice. One could write a paper in the own kitchen, and then send it to a reputable journal. That's "performing research." It is also extremely difficult. Much easier to be in a commercial or university research group, with a salary or grants to pay for the livelihood, colleagues and advisors to challenge intermediary results, access to labs, etc. For that, academic credentials are helpful, and a serious mental illness makes it harder to get those credentials. – o.m. Oct 2 '20 at 10:48
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    @o.m. OP didn’t ask for a general discussion about the challenges of dealing with mental illness. They asked about “being allowed to perform research”, and that’s what my answer is addressing. The practical issues you raise are real ones of course but are beyond the scope of the question. – Dan Romik Oct 2 '20 at 11:49
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It depends on several factors

  1. Where you live

  2. What type of research

  3. What type and level of mental illness

Anecdotal evidence

A. I managed to have a good and varied career including research despite having recurrent bouts of depression from the age of fourteen. I'm retired now but it was only a few years ago that I was diagnosed as bipolar. This made complete sense of a lot of events in my life that definitely weren't due to depression. Sometimes my family and friends thought I was crazy - it turns out they were right!

In fact during manic episodes I could be incredibly creative and efficient and these intense periods of work cancelled out my lack of productivity due to depression.

However, I'm officially bipolar 2.

People who are bipolar 1 can undergo much more extreme changes in mood. I've met many and they tell tales of believing they can fly or thinking they were Jesus and so on. They would also take on huge undertakings that were in theory possible for a determined healthy person but not for someone who would later be incapacitated by depression.

B. I have met many people with different forms of mental illness. If you are someone who regularly meets demons that tell you what to do (I'm not joking or taking this lightly, I know such people and they are usually lovely to know) then you will probably be on pretty strong drugs that may slow your thinking down so much that you are incapable of thinking deeply. If you suffer badly from paranoia then you may find it difficult to work with others and they may find it difficult to work with you (I was there for a period of months years ago so I know).


Answer

As I say, it depends on those three factors. If the law doesn't prohibit you in your country then it's up to you to decide what you can manage. Get a doctor to back you up if necessary.

The main thing is to make sure you have psychological backup in place. In decent universities there will be counselling and student mental-health facilities - I used those.

If you are convinced you can do it then go all out for it! Don't let anyone stop you! Just make sure you have contingency plans in place.

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In the United States, mental illness is considered a disability and US labor law typically forbids discrimination based on disability status when not relevant to the job at hand.

However, there are some exceptions to the rule that a researcher might encounter:

  • People with severe mental illnesses are typically ineligible for US Government security clearances, which might present an obstacle to doing certain research of military value. This may be significant in some fields. The National Security Agency has claimed to be the largest employer of mathematicians in the United States, and typically all of them will need Top Secret security clearances.

  • People with severe mental illnesses, or are taking certain medications, may not pass a FAA medical exam. This may prevent a researcher from flying an airplane or a large drone. Although if one's research project involves flying, presumably they can outsource the flying to a qualified pilot.

  • Having a severe mental illness may impact one's ability to obtain or retain a license to practice medicine, although this is unclear and may change in the future. This might impact a medical researcher's career, although there are notable researchers with mental illness like Kay Redfield Jamison. Instead of an MD, she has a PhD in clinical psychology and has considerable experience with patients.

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It's certainly possible, e.g. Einstein and Newton are speculated to have Asperger's Syndrome.

The real problem is whether the researcher is able to have productive ideas in spite of the mental disorder/illness, and there are certainly some illnesses where that would not be the case.

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    I think the last sentence is somehow problematic - what is a "more serious" disorder? Depression may be very severe and dangerous, but research may still be possible; schizophrenia may be very severe, but there is still the case of John Nash... One could view the last sentence as "if one can't do research, than the disorder is severe", though… – Dirk Sep 29 '20 at 6:04
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    @Dirk I was thinking of illnesses that impact cognition, such as Alzheimer's disease. Going to edit the answer. – Allure Sep 29 '20 at 6:07
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    Perhaps "there are certainly some illnesses where that would not be the case" – Azor Ahai -him- Sep 29 '20 at 16:16
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    AS/autism might not be the best example here as their classification as "illness"/"disorder" is somewhat contentious. For some of us autistic folk it's only "illness" in the same way that being a left-hander in a world of right-handed tools is "disability". Unfortunately, the classification systems and legislation around this kind of thing aren't well designed to distinguish between "abnormal" and "unhealthy". – Geoffrey Brent Sep 30 '20 at 0:42
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I presume that this questions stems from a concern about the scientific career of someone who is or may be treated for a mental illness/psychiatric disorder. In that case it really depends on:

  1. Whteher the patient ever had the legal rights over their healthcare taken away (in the UK, this is called 'sectioning under the mental health act'), and in general what the medical classification of their illness was.

  2. The kind of research you want to do

  3. Where you want to work

Regarding 1, there are many people suffering with depression for instance, in any profession, and this goes undiagnosed and might not even be noticed by colleagues. Heck, the person might nit even know they are depressed. There would be no grounds on which to prevent such a person from working in research, legally (though I have seen companies get rid of employees with mild anxiety/depression which had some effect on their work, which is a nasty and illegal thing to do). Even if you visit your GP and they tell you that they think you are mildly depressed and put you on antidepressants, I do not think this counts for anything officially unless you were diagnosed by a psychiatric specialist.

Regarding 2, if you are a working on something top secret then your employer may be a bit more selective to avoid secrets being leaked. I don't know exactly what employers ask in these situations and it is probably job-specific, but I would be very hesitatant to employ someone who is on antidepressants as these can make you somewhat chatty. I would be interested whether this counts as discrimination even for such jobs were workers are handling highly confidential material. I think these more stringent selection criteria would also apply for research with highly dangerous materials (nuclear weapons, biological warfare and class 4 biological agents.

Point 3: As far as I am aware, if you are sectioned in the UK, you can no longer work in the military or any research related to/backed by the military, but there is no problem with you later becoming a doctor/surgeon! Different sectors have different policies.

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I do not have a reference, just anecdotal evidence from training and working in the field of psychiatry. There are many psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, and other allied professionals who do perform research and have performed research over many, many years. They have made enormous contributions to the field. Even before the advent of medications and more effective psychotherapy, this was done. It is not at all uncommon. Their disorders are controlled by some means. If they are not, and they do not recognize this, their colleagues help them. This is incredibly common in this field.

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  • Re: Kay Redfield Jamieson, I do not know of a source that backs up why she would have preferred to choose the field of psychiatry. I did search. – Lori Adams Oct 1 '20 at 20:11
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I just stumbled over this YouTube video of a TED talk. It seems highly relevant, even if your condition doesn't happen to be schizophrenia. The speaker is schizophrenic and is a high-powered researcher. Plus she is a mental-health advocate.

I Am Not A Monster: Schizophrenia | Cecilia McGough | TEDxPSU

Cecilia McGough puts a face to schizophrenia and helps empower college students through the upcoming non-profit Students With Schizophrenia.

Cecilia McGough is an astronomer, activist, and writer as a Penn State Schreyer Honors College scholar pursuing a major in Astronomy & Astrophysics. Cecilia is the founder and current president of the Penn State Pulsar Search Collaboratory. She has been participating in pulsar research continuously since December of 2009, co-discovering pulsar J1930-1852 with the widest orbit ever observed around another neutron star, competing in the International Space Olympics held in Russia, and co-authoring her research in the Astrophysics Journal. Cecilia is a mental health activist in fighting against the negative stigma towards mental illness. She is the founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of the soon to launch non-profit Students With Schizophrenia which is the only non-profit in the United States focused on empowering college students with schizophrenia.

This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at ...

Note I removed some links from the quote because they weren't working following my Copy and Paste. However the working links can be found by clicking on SHOW MORE under the Youtube video.


EDIT

Here's an update to what's happened since this talk. The organisation has changed its name from Students with Schizophrenia to Students with Psychosis.

https://sws.ngo/

https://sws.ngo/resource-direction/

https://sws.ngo/newsletter-2020/

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You would be excluded: If you have a mental illness where your research will damage or endanger you, because of the nature of your research and illness. Or if you have a mental illness where your research together with your mental illness makes you a danger for others, because of the nature of your research and illness.

For example, there are plenty of mental illnesses where the effect is that you may just be out of action sometimes. For much research, no problem. But if you are a chemist heating up some material on a bunsen burner, and you are sometimes incapable to remove that material from heat, that could be dangerous. Still, no problem if you have a research assistant who watches out.

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  • In most first-world countries, you wouldn't be allowed to be excluded because of a mental illness because of anti-discrimination laws - your employer would be required to give you "reasonable accommodations" instead, like the research assistant you mentioned. – nick012000 Oct 2 '20 at 6:37

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