Mental illness should not
disqualify me

Published July 01 2019

Am I emotionally stable? This old question came crawling back when I saw a screenshot of a university recommendation form that asked for an assessment of students’ emotional stability.* Nestled between “This applicant shows integrity” and “This applicant is able to give clear, concise oral presentations,” the survey offered a multiple-choice response to “This applicant is emotionally stable.”

How would I be scored? How would I rate myself, and would that rating matter if they knew my full background?

A memory bubbled up from nearly four years ago. I was preparing my application for the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program. A professor in my program was assigned to help edit the proposal, and I sat in his office. The scientific research was fine, he said; it was logically sound and relevant to the foundation’s goals. The personal statement required major improvements.

“How do you show them you’re not just another little white girl?”

I was shocked, but I now appreciate his honesty that my bland story about loving science as a child wouldn’t get me very far.

After digging around in my brain, we examined how my love for biology not only started when I was young but also forced me to deal with the crippling social anxiety that had been part of me for just as long. It was a true story of overcoming obstacles through effort, all in the name of science.

The professor told me to make it clear that I was not relying on medication or therapy; otherwise, the application committee might not feel confident in my abilities. Though his words come back to annoy me when I’m introduced as an advocate for mental health, making me feel afraid or ashamed to speak so publicly to my peers, I believe his advice was crucial in winning the fellowship.

My application might have ended up on the desk of a reviewer who understood the value of seeking help and of being wise enough to use it. Such amazing people surround me now. But maybe my story would have been read by one of the many people studies have shown to have subconscious, or even conscious, biases against those of us with mental illness. Maybe it would have been read by someone who, like the professor advising me, couldn’t see that a diagnosed and treated mental illness was not a weakness.

In my personal statement, I wrote that I had finished treatment for mental illness. That was true when I submitted the proposal. A year after I was awarded the NSF fellowship, my next mental health crisis occurred.

Art Would the NSF have funded me if they had known about all of this? I am tenacious, responsible, reliable and intelligent. I love learning and discussing science. I believe academia can be a wonderful place where brilliant minds come together to help each other.

But am I emotionally stable?

When we believe that we have achieved our status by luck or help and that we would be dismissed if our true selves were discovered, that’s called imposter syndrome. But what if society at large, knowing our truth, really wouldn’t think we belong? If value in academia is based on the ability to think, what happens when a person admits their mind is sometimes broken?

Should we encourage others to be open about mental illness in a space where they might face retribution? It’s a valid question when being outed for mental illness really does threaten professional standing and can affect relationships throughout a career.

I am emotionally stable-ish. On medication and with ongoing psychotherapy, I can handle more stress and disturbances than ever before. I became able to do this only by acknowledging that something was wrong in the pipeline of my thoughts and making the terrifying decision to get help. Without a support system of doctors and friends, I operate well below my maximum ability; with care and treatment, I am a successful graduate student, skillful researcher and overall way better human.

Reaching out for support is a sign of self-awareness and of our strength. Estimates vary, but if a significant minority of graduate students are struggling with symptoms of mental illness, excluding anyone who may be categorized as “emotionally unstable” will debilitate our academic community. Enforcing a system of bias against disclosing mental illness only pushes people to let their illness grow until it overtakes them.

By providing support, we can stabilize almost anything and make it more resilient — including a person. We can change the environment within academia to do just that, and I believe it will make us better as a community. Instead of pressuring our students and professors to hide their mental illnesses or disclose “emotional stability” status, let’s create a system that supports them throughout the relatively unstable paths of academia.

*After I asked the university about its recommendation form, the question about emotional stability was removed immediately.

It will be a much longer process to remove these same questions from the minds of the application reviewers and the prejudice that comes along with them.

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Susanna Harris Susanna Harris is a Ph.D. candidate in microbiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and founder of ThePhDepression, a project to increase visibility of those in academia who struggle with mental health issues. Follow her on Twitter.