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This question is inspired by answers and comments to the question "Should a postdoc talk about his depression with his mentor?" on this website.

Suppose that an applicant to a graduate program suffered from some mental health issues during the completion of his previous degrees, and that this situation had a noticeable impact on his academic performance (for example, significantly lower grades or part-time status for one or several semesters).

Most graduate school applications have sections dedicated to providing explanations for such special circumstances, and it is of course strongly recommended that any applicant with unusual drops in academic performance should mention something about this in the special circumstances section. Otherwise, the admission committee will be left to guess what might have happened, which is likely to decrease the odds of being admitted (indeed, it seems a consensus that the more tangible information an admission committee has about an applicant, the more confident they can be about the fact that admitting him will be a sound investment).

Many answers/comments to the question "Should a postdoc talk about his depression with his mentor?" seem to recommend being very careful about revealing details on one's mental health conditions, given that there is still a lot of stigma attached to mental health conditions. However, in the case of PhD applications, not mentioning anything is not an option.

This then leads to the following question: If not making any mention of health issues is not an option (such as in PhD applications), how much details should one go into? To avoid stereotyping associated to any particular disease (such as depression=unreliable, learning disability=not smart) one could limit the description to "health problem", but could this lack of details be seen as suspicious and/or still a situation where the admissions committee will have to do guesswork?

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    "However, in the case of PhD applications, not mentioning anything is not an option." - Why is it not an option? It may or may not be a good option depending on this circumstances, but it is an option. – ff524 Nov 23 '14 at 4:43
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You do not have to disclose your personal health history (including mental health) to graduate schools when you are applying -- and even while you are enrolled.

There are occasions where you may want to. For example, if there is a semester in your undergraduate record where you did particularly poorly because of (mental) health issues, you may want to note this is in your diversity statement or special circumstances portion. However, you can be as vague as you want -- saying "In the fall of my junior year, my health declined which led to poor performance in a number of my classes. I recovered the next semester and you can see that my senior year grades were all of the highest rank."

If you have faculty writing letters of recommendation for you who know about this incident, you may want to tell them: 1) if you want them to mention it or not; 2) what language to use ("she became depressed following a family death" vs. "She struggled with the additional family issues following the death of her mother" vs. "There was a family crisis that took her away from school that semester", etc.etc.).

Otherwise, your (mental) health record is your personal medical information. The professors in your department do not need to know it -- any more than they would need to know that you had HIV or were on dialysis. If you need accommodation (such as taking Wed and Fri off for dialysis, or for therapy) you may want to disclose that to some people but you should feel free to compartmentalize the information to certain people and to not disclose everything about your condition.

For example, it is entirely appropriate to tell just your advisor, department chair or director of graduate studies -- or external to the department: your university ombudsperson, disability services officers, or associate provost or dean -- some of the details of your condition and what accommodations you need to be a successful scholar, but ask that the information not be shared with faculty members in the department. But again, this is your choice.

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    I would probably emphasize do not have to rather than just have. It attracts the point better, focusing on the do not rather than just the have. – Compass Dec 4 '14 at 20:31
  • Yes, "compartmentalization". – paul garrett Dec 4 '14 at 21:27
  • @Compass - done! – RoboKaren Dec 4 '14 at 23:26
  • The examples further enrich a solid and helpful answer. – aparente001 Feb 22 '18 at 3:14
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It's not possible to give specific advice without knowing such things as legal jurisdiction and the equal-opportunity commitments of the institution behind the grad school. Be aware that, while there is growing recognition that prejudice against mental-health issues is indeed prejudice, this is a prejudice that is widely tolerated.

Nonetheless, a request for information about "special circumstances" is not an invitation to feed the prejudices of the search committee. Clear, historically objective matters such as:

  1. Suspension of studies or retaking a whole year, for whatever reason
  2. Behavioural problems that were officially sanctioned by the University, especially violations of anti-harassment rules

will need to be documented and the candidate needs to be ready to handle questions about why such events occurred.

The kind of special circumstance that you should not feel particular need to bring up are

  1. Receiving a psychiatric diagnosis
  2. Seeking or receiving informal advice about difficulty handling stress or motivation problems
  3. Unusual causes of stress from home life, such as mental health issues, physical health problems, abusive relationships, handling infirm relatives, etc.

The fact that one of these issues could influence the decision of someone on the search committee is not sufficient reason to raise it, for the same sort of reason (bar possible absence of equal opportunities legislation) that issues concerning sexual orientation, or religious/ political beliefs: they are not in and of themselves issues in one's academic career. It may be wise to allude to these issues if they explain the former kind of event, but it is unlikely to be wise to do so in lurid terms. If someone retook a year because of a breakdown, saying that they were unable to handle the stress is reasonable, especially if it is possible to show that this was a learning experience and can now be handled in a way that will not undermine their academic career. The existence of the latter kind of issue is not ipso facto a career issue.

Overall, I recommend not being prejudiced against oneself. Nobody lacks mental imperfections, and indeed many mental traits can be problematic in one situation but efficient in another. The advice Sheryl Sandberg gives in her Leaning In deals with prejudices against career women, but the point she makes in her last chapter about not handicapping oneself applies here as well.

  • I like your Point 2 "Behavioural problems that were officially sanctioned by the University, especially violations of anti-harassment rules" -- if the transcript gives related information. // You lost me in "bar possible absence of equal opportunities legislation", though. – aparente001 Feb 22 '18 at 3:17

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