Ask Dr. Gray: Premed Q&A: Mentioning Mental Illness in Applications

Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts

Ask Dr. Gray: Premed Q&A: Mentioning Mental Illness in Applications

Session 76

There are ways to touch upon mental illness in your application that are more discreet. But what if it’s a major part of your story?

Our episodes are recorded live on Facebook at 3pm ET on most weekdays. Like the page to be notified.

For more help on your medical school application, check out The Premed Years Podcast.

[00:22] Dealing with Mental Illness

“My GPA fluctuated because of a mental illness that I was dealing with back in the day. 

In high school, I got the opportunity to go to a college early as part of the full time dual enrollment programs. It was also free so I signed up for it

But at that time too, I was dealing with figuring out a medication that worked with my mental illness. I’m currently taking medication for being bipolar. 

Being bipolar basically means some days you’re very just depressed. Other days you’re just go, go, go, go, go and your mind races and your neck is kind of like in a manic type of state. 

In my junior year, I was trying out medications and none of them really worked during that time. Eventually, my psychiatrist finally found the perfect mix of medications that would work out the best for me to make me feel stable.

I did really well in my junior year so in my senior year, I also decided that I was going to do everything. So I became editor in chief and vice president of this business club. 

I did all this other stuff but I didn’t know how to adapt to my studying and thinking methods so I did really poorly that fall term of senior year.

At that point in time, from a transcript point of view, in my senior year, I would have been a sophomore. This was my sophomore year of college, but also I was like 17. And it was also the first time I took such a heavy science load. 

I took all science classes and my math and I ended up with like a 1.8 GPA that term. It was terrible. It was also a wake up call.

I then decided to take it easy in my senior year. I took Calculus 1, which was the class that I failed and I did fine. I didn’t realize that still has an impact right now on me. I transferred to a four year institution, basically a full ride for four years. 

So instead of graduating early, I just decided to stay for four years and major in neuroscience and minor in psychology and Spanish literature. This was my first time away from home. I’m living in the dorms all this time. And I did great and my medications were perfectly in tune with what I was doing.” 

[06:20] Question of the Day

Grade-wise, full science GPA is 3.3. Calculus is not counted here because math is not counted as a science. So cumulative, it’s a 3.5. So this student has a decent overall GPA. They’re not 2.8 or 2.7. But it’s not bad. It sounds like a good, strong upward trend, which is great and each student needs to have.

So our student has two questions:

First was how to reconcile the red flag in her application because it was caused partly or fully by dealing with this mental illness. So is it okay if she includes this in her personal statement?

[07:23] Looking at This in Two Ways

I’ve just like talked to different admissions directors and they tell me that they have a section for any additional information. So you could put that there. Mental illness is a tough one. And so there are a couple of different ways to look at it.

The first way is to say, “you know what? My mental illness is me. It’s part of me. It’s who I am. I am open to talk about it. And if the school doesn’t like it, Oh, well, all right.” So that’s one way to look at it.

The other way to look at it is, “you know what this is? It’s my illness and it’s none of their business. And yes, I struggled partly because of it or maybe a lot because of it. But it’s still none of their business. And so I’m not going to mention it.”

I recommend going with the second one because mental illness could be seen as a big red flag to the admissions committee.

“Mental illness could be seen as a big red flag to the admissions committee.”Click To Tweet

The admissions committee are essentially concerned whether you would be a liability when it comes to having a student who can graduate on time.

And if you have some sort of a manic episode or whatever, where you kind of go off the rails and you get behind a semester or whatever. And medical school could cause lack of sleep, poor eating habits, and lack of exercise and everything else that affects mental illness.

Is that going to be an issue?

[09:05] An Easier Way to Explain It

So it’s easy enough to explain that in your senior year of high school, you took on way too much and it affected your grades, unfortunately because you were dual enrolled. It affected your college grades as well.

But you took it  as a learning experience. You were young and you’ve learned better time management skills. You’ve learned not to take on too much. That explains it without having to go into mental illness as well.

[09:33] Mental Illness as a Reason to Want to Become a Physician

But if your mental illness is the biggest reason why you wanted to be a physician and why you’ve come to love the field of medicine and it’s because of that, then it’s hard to avoid talking about it.

“It's hard to avoid talking about it if it's a big part of your reason why you want to be a physician. And the personal statement is all about why you want to be a physician.”Click To Tweet

But try to see if there’s a different kind of language that you can use so you can be more generic about it in a way. There are ways to kind of mute without calling out specifically. 

Like if there is mental illness in your other family members. So you could probably spin this to how you saw they were treated and made you want to become a physician.

Recently, I had a student who was writing about a rare genetic condition that causes facial deformities. It causes the suture lines in her skull to fuse prematurely and she named the genetic condition in her personal statement right off the bat.

So the person reading that personal statement would then Google what the genetic condition was to get a vision of how it’s like. We love to use our minds and our senses. We try to picture those words.

And so if you say, you have a disorder in your personal statement, people will picture out their aunt Susie who had bipolar disorder and was off the rails. They picture Carrie Mathison from Homeland who has bipolar disorder and what she looked like on the TV show.

[12:50] Use a More Generic Language

Try to see if you can talk about mental illness without actually naming it. 

If you can do it to a level where you are happy with it, where you still think it’s your story, then try to go that route. But if you get to that point and you feel like it’s just not telling your story enough then go full bore and name it.

Do whatever you need to do but understand that there may be consequences on the other end from the person reading.

You can just say you’re needing a lot of care from physicians growing up. And you can just say it as generic as possible.

But you still have to be you and you still have to tell your story or else it’s not a good personal statement.

“Try to find that balance between telling your story and preventing you from calling yourself out”Click To Tweet


Meded Media

The Premed Years Podcast

MSHQ Facebook Hangout Group