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Depression: Should I Talk about My Mental Illness in My Application?

Mary Sue Youn

Written by Mary Sue Younon September 2nd, 2017

I joined College Coach after working at Barnard College of Columbia University, where I served as the senior associate director of admissions. As the senior manager of the admissions staff, I coordinated all admissions recruitment travel, and directed the application review process. I chaired the admissions committee and personally reviewed many applications from both first-year and transfer admissions applicants. Prior to my tenure at Barnard, I was an admissions counselor at Whittier College and directed the merit scholarship process for the college. My admissions career began as an alumna admissions volunteer for Cornell University while completing my graduate work in psychology at Claremont Graduate University.
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If you are a student struggling with clinical depression in high school, it can be tough to know how to broach the subject of mental illness with prospective colleges. Should I ask questions about counseling when I visit? Should I write my essay about my treatment for depression? Will sharing my mental illness cause a college to immediately deny my application? During my tenure as a college admissions officer, we would regularly meet with the counseling services on campus to learn about the trends they were seeing in our campus population, and to solicit their advice about how best to advise prospective students. Here’s my advice about how to handle this sensitive subject in your college application process:
  • First of all, know that you are not alone. According to recent studies by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health anxiety and depression are the most common mental illnesses seen by college counseling centers. In fact, there has been a 30% increase in counseling center utilization on campus over the last five years. Please know that many students struggle with similar issues and colleges are accustomed to these inquiries.
  • Don’t be afraid to talk about your struggles in your application. Students dealing with mental illness in high school have often demonstrated tremendous fortitude in overcoming their challenges and carrying on with their schooling. However, frequent absences or substantial dips in grades are noticed during an application review. As an admissions officer, I strongly preferred to hear the reasons behind these anomalies directly from the student, rather than their teacher or guidance counselor. In fact, our counseling center showed us that students who could openly talk about their mental illness and advocate for themselves and what they needed were much more likely to have positive outcomes in the college setting. I particularly advise students to write about their depression if there was a significant change in grades or time away from school while undergoing treatment. Contrary to popular belief, mental illness was not seen in the admission office as a reason to deny the student, but provided necessary context for the admission reader about that student’s high school experience.
  • Do realize that you are more than your mental illness—and your main essay should reflect that. The main personal statement of your application should be an expression of your unique personality and interests. Are you a scientist, a writer, an artist? Are you funny, do you love to debate, or are you a meticulous researcher? Your main essay should reflect the wonderful qualities that you bring to any college campus, not only your depression. A statement about your treatment for depression is usually most appropriate for the Additional Information section on the Common Application, or for a supplemental essay in a college’s own portion of the application. Keep the statement short (1-2 paragraphs at most), and focus on the coping skills you’ve developed from treatment that will serve you well in college.
  • Be aware of campus resources before you head off to college officially. Ask questions about counseling centers when you visit campus, or give them a call if you are unable to visit. Many campuses provide individual or group therapy on campus, while others refer students to work with therapists local to the area. Even if you are not currently experiencing depressive symptoms, it is important to know what’s available should your depression reoccur during the stresses of college life. The National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) has a wonderful college guide resource to get you started.


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