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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
It depends on several factors
Where you live
What type of research
What type and level of mental illness
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).
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
The kind of research you want to do
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.