Sometimes it takes unspeakably tragic events to bring the existence of a widespread problem into the national conversation. In the past decade, highly publicized rashes of suicides at NYU, UPenn, Tulane and Cornell, among others, have moved the discussion of mental health services on campus right to the forefront of the higher education discourse.
Thankfully, these are, of course, extreme cases of mental health challenges, but the shift in focus could benefit the massive numbers of students who enter college each year with some degree of a mental health condition. Between the ages of 13 and 18, approximately 20% of American adolescents will deal with some form of mental illness. Under this umbrella falls anything from minor depression or anxiety all the way to potentially more serious conditions like pediatric schizophrenia or post-traumatic stress disorder.
In this piece, we will offer recommendations for dealing with depression/anxiety on your college application, but perhaps more importantly, we will share what mental health experts and current research says are important considerations for managing your illness on campus.
*Disclaimer: Mind you, we are college planning experts, not mental health experts—we are merely summarizing mental health considerations as related to college admissions and attendance. Your mental health provider may offer additional advice based on the specifics of your situation.
Impact on your high school career
For many, dealing with a mental health condition will negatively impact their high school career in some way, potentially impacting areas such as academic performance, school attendance, teacher relationships, and extracurricular involvement. There is ample statistical evidence to support this—students with social phobia are twice as likely to fail a grade as those without. Students with a depression diagnosis have been found to earn significantly lower grades than their similarly-abled peers.
Given the impact of mental illness on a teen’s academics, a significant number of high school seniors are faced with a difficult choice each year—do I reveal my condition on my college application? There is no blanket answer that will guide every applicant. Ultimately, the decision to reveal your condition is an entirely personal one.
Did your academic performance suffer?
Perhaps your mental health issues were managed successfully and never impacted your grades. If this is the case, we advise that there is no reason to reveal your condition on an application. You should, however, still check out our recommendations on how to check out a college’s mental health services (below).
If your academic performance did suffer as a result of your condition and you do choose to share your challenges with prospective colleges in an essay and/or interview, we recommend that you consider framing your experience in one of the following ways:
The “overcoming obstacles” angle
Overcoming challenges and citing evidence of personal growth can be a winning story arc. If a bout of depression during your sophomore year contributed toward failing grades but you received treatment and rebounded academically the following year, then revealing that journey may be extremely helpful to your admissions chances. Knowing that you faced a significant challenge in your life and successfully emerged from it speaks volumes about your resilience, maturity, and grit, traits that are greatly valued by admissions officers.
Weakness as strength
Another approach is highlighting the strength that you draw from what others call an “illness.” An associate of Abraham Lincoln said of our 16th president that the “melancholy dripped from him as he walked.” Yet, many historians feel that Lincoln’s lifelong depression sparked a great deal of his legendary wisdom, insight, and brilliant strategic thinking. Lincoln was hardly alone; many of the greatest, most creative minds throughout history were, at least in part, driven by mental conditions. Darwin, Michelangelo, and Einstein were all likely sufferers of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. If we were to list all of all the great writers, artists, comedians, actors, and directors who were influenced by depression and anxiety, this blog post would be longer than the 1,017 page novel, Bleak House, penned by Charles Dickens, who was himself a lifelong victim of severe depression.
The semantic shift
Cautious applicants might consider simply substituting the term “medical condition” for “mental illness.” After all, depression, anxiety, and the like are treatable medical conditions in the same vein as mono, kidney surgery, or any other condition that might disrupt one’s educational experience. Simply stating that you were afflicted by a “serious medical condition” which caused a temporary academic decline and led to you quitting the school newspaper and the baseball team will suffice.
Check out a college’s services ahead of time
In a recent survey of college students with a diagnosed mental health condition, 45% rated their respective college as being somewhere between supportive and very supportive. The other 55% felt that mental health care on campus was less than ideal. Factors that were rated as being most important by students included: access to a psychiatrist for medication management, a 24-hour crisis hotline, community connections to additional mental healthcare, and the school’s overall culture of understanding that college can be stress-inducing and that mental health is paramount.
It is essential that parents and students research the mental health services on campus ahead of time. Check out each prospective college’s counseling office online to get a sense of what is available to students. If a college does not offer long-term therapy on campus, then parents should take the reins and find a good private therapist located near campus who accepts their insurance. This should be done well in advance.
College Transitions bottom line: If you are going to discuss your depression, anxiety, or other mental condition in your application, do so in a strategic manner for the purpose of illuminating otherwise unexplained inconsistencies in your academic record. A well-conceived and well-delivered narrative about your struggles with mental illness can be beneficial to your admissions chances; a poorly crafted disclosure may have the opposite effect.
Of even greater importance is that you do your research on the mental health services offered at each of your prospective colleges—ensuring that the necessary supports at your disposal may be critical to your overall well-being as well as to your academic performance over the next four years.
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).
Today we're back with another installment of our monthly series of personal essays from members of the YBC Community. I personally love to create content, but I don't want YBC to be the Candace Show. I firmly believe that everyone knows something I don't, and therefore, we can always learn from others. My hope is that through these personal essays, we develop a deeper bond within the YBC Community, connect with one another, and learn from each other. Today's essay is from Lauren Baker of Balancing Imbalance, who writes about mental illness. This essay really hit home for me, as depression runs in my family, and I am so grateful to Lauren for sharing. If you or anyone you know if having suicidal thoughts, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Line. And, if you're interested in writing a personal essay for this series, fill this out.
Hello! My name is Lauren Baker, and I have been committed to yoga for a year and a half. I have two daughters, Lyra and Lux, and they greatest joy of my life. I have a master’s degree in literature, teach freshman composition at a community college, and I write a blog called Balancing Imbalance (and find me on instagram here). My blog is a space to talk about different techniques for mental illness management. My posts are stories of yoga, weird things that happen when you’re living with chemical imbalance, motherhood, and any techniques I use, or have tried, to manage major depressive disorder. Sharing my story has brought me so much joy, and I am committed to doing my part to end the stigma of mental illness.
In 2015 I suffered from the most difficult depression of my life. And that’s saying something; I’ve been medicated off and on for major depressive disorder since the age of fourteen- just over half of my life. Depression is bad enough on its own, but this bout was particularly awful because at the time I was also pregnant with my second daughter, Lux. The result was a chemically charged eight month hormonal breakdown. In other words: complete misery.
For eight months I had more feelings than I knew how to handle. I was excited for our new baby, but she was a BIG surprise so I my plans and goals (finally finishing graduate school- oh yeah, I was in grad school TOO btw) were completely shaken. I was excited but disrupted, and I felt bad for feeling disrupted. I was exhausted all the time. I was simultaneously raising a one year old, taking graduate level classes, teaching two classes of freshman composition (Oh yeah, I was teaching TOO btw), AND growing a baby. In retrospect, HELL YES I WAS TIRED! But I also felt guilty for being so tired. And I was so sad; so excruciatingly sad. My partner of ten years, bless his soul, didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t tell him what I needed because I honestly didn’t know. There was an ocean between us, and that made me mad. I was mad that I was sad, and sad that I was tired, and I wallowed in lonely despair for eight solid months.
Finally, one month before my due date, the last of my strength left me. On August 1st, 2015 my daughter caused a scene in public. I had taken her to a toddler gymnastics class hoping for a fun hour with her. Instead of fun, she had a classically bratty toddler meltdown. And what did I do? I had one with her. I jerked her into my arms, stormed out of the gym, went to our car and dropped her into her car seat, hard. One of the buckles hurt her little back and she looked at me with so much betrayal in her eyes, I actually felt my sanity snap. I managed to drive us home through tears, to my husband who was working from home. I wanted to die. I was sure that my family would be better if I was gone, and I absolutely could not imagine living with that pain another day. I wanted to erase myself from this world- but I couldn’t take my unborn daughter with me. So I drove myself to the emergency room, waddled into the check in desk, and told the woman that “I need to kill myself, but I don’t want to hurt my baby.” I will never forget the size of her eyes. She looked like she had just seen, well, a girl who wanted to kill herself but not her baby. I am willing to bet it was the first time she had heard that one.