During my PhD I suffered from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, that was officially diagnosed. I had to stay away from the University for a year, however this issue didn't affect at all my productivity and I carried on my research with several publications.

When asking for recommendation letters, my supervisor told me he is forced to mention my problem, underlining my health issues. I would like to know how much he can write about my mental health, also considering that the academic work didn't suffer at all from this.

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    I question whether it is ethical or possibly even legal for your supervisor to do this. In the US, if you were physically handicapped, the ADA would provide a set of protections (I don't know how broad). But it would be very strange to feel compelled to mention it!
    – Corvus
    Apr 5, 2016 at 17:11
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    Maybe if he says nothing, recipients of the letter will be wondering why you stayed away from the University for a year.
    – GEdgar
    Apr 5, 2016 at 18:02
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    While for your Ph.D work it didn't matter all that much that you could not be present at the university for a long time, if you become a post-doc then having the same problem again would seriously impede your work. Apr 5, 2016 at 18:55
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    If you're work progressed I see no reason why he needs to mention it. It sounds a bit like he is retaliating because you were gone for a year... I think you should ask him about his reasons. Apr 6, 2016 at 0:30
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    Your supervisor sounds like the world's biggest jerk. Does he not realize how harmful this is?
    – user1482
    Apr 6, 2016 at 4:34

3 Answers 3


I would like to know how much he can write about my mental health, also considering that the academic work didn't suffer at all from this.

According to some of organizations: "The Americans with Disabilities Act recognizes that employers may sometimes have to disclose medical information about applicants or employees. " But also they claim: "The basic legal principle that employers should follow is not to reveal medical information about you unless there is a legitimate business reason to do so. But because that standard is fairly vague, there are laws which more specifically protect the privacy of your medical records, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, the law which makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of an employee's disability."

For UK you may find more information on NHS website and Equality Act 2010 Guidance for employees.

If you ask me I would say that it is not actually ethical to write about your mental health if your job didn't suffer from that. For some careers there are some health restrictions (e.g. pilots, surgeons, etc.) but I've never seen that for academic work. More to say, I know people who have GAD, OCD, etc. and they have never had significant issues in academic life. But I also have to say that people usually don't take year off because of mental health issue, especially not for GAD. From your post I can't see if the GAD is a main reason of one year off. If it isn't the main reason then I don't understand why your supervisor has a need to write it in recommendation letter. But, if GAD is your main reason why you needed to stay away from University than I don't understand how your mental health didn't affect your productivity when it is even though you continued to work. Whatever the case is, I wouldn't like that my supervisor writes "a mental issue" because for me it sounds serious and Generalized Anxiety Disorder actually doesn't sound due to prevalence "GAD affects 6.8 million adults, or 3.1% of the U.S. population"

Shortly, I don't think he should write about your mental health when you obviously continued to work. It is your private information, there are some laws about it and I am worried that you will be discriminate because of that.

My advice: Talk with your supervisor, find out why he thinks that he is forced to write it in recommendation letter (that is really strange) and please look more into the laws and send them to him if it is needed.

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    This is somewhere a grey area. The problem is not the productivity - the supervisor seems anxious that, if the OP will stay away from work for a year somewhere, the supervisor will be sued for not mentioning possible reasons for complete absence; and he does not seem courageous enough to take the risk of just concentrating on the results in his reference (which is what would be perfectly possible to do). However, there are positions where more emphasis is on presence than on performance, so the supervisor may see his position as justified, even if I would not agree. Check status with a lawyer. May 24, 2016 at 6:08
  • Do not get my last "check status" comment as a suggestion to threaten the supervisor with a lawyer, consider it just as a fact-checking exercise. May 24, 2016 at 6:09

If you received significant special accommodations while doing your PhD, e.g., double-time on your exams (especially comprehensive written exams and such) and other special help during your research period (was he easier on you and gave you more guidance and answers and harder on other students?), I am guessing that he feels that he must write a "fair" letter of recommendation, stating how you received special help -- and as a result of the special help, you were able to be a productive student and researcher. I highly doubt he will say much more than this, because your privacy is likely protected by several different laws.

I'm really not sure, though -- so this is just something for you to consider.


There's probably a misinterpretation going on. I suspect your advisor wants to explain something to the people reading it, rather than "warn" them. Something like:

he took a year off because he was ill

is okay to say.

you should be aware that he has condition X

may actually be illegal to say, and I would not want to receive such a letter. The people receiving it are suddenly at risk for a discrimination case if they do not give the position and it can be credibly shown that the reason was the disability.

So - ask your supervisor why he feels he needs to mention it. In parallel, contact your university's disabilities office to get a response. If you are uncomfortable with your supervisor's reason, tell him the advice you got from the disabilities office.

To give you an idea of how seriously some universities take various regulations - I had to have permission from an undergraduate to include their grade in a letter of recommendation.

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