Should you talk about mental health issues on med school applications?
This has increasingly become one of my most asked questions. I’m open about my generalized anxiety disorder as well as my history of Anorexia Nervosa. I can’t really avoid that fact that my schools and future employers will know since I’ve written about these things publicly as well as done a fair amount of volunteer and advocacy work that is on my resume. But that’s not the case for everyone. I’ll share a little about my decision to share these things as well as my advice for other people starting applications.
Why I Share
To be clear, my resume doesn’t explicitly state that I have had any mental health issue. It does outline my various research, volunteer, and advocacy efforts surrounding eating disorders, so that probably makes it relatively obvious that I have some connection to them. My anxiety disorder is not listed in any way shape or form on my resume.
My eating disorder almost always came up during my post-bac and med school interviews. It was driving force in my interest in health and wellness, medicine, and patient care. A lot of my activities revolve around it, so it’s hard to avoid. But I also don’t want to avoid it! I am a firm believer that in order to destigmatize mental health we have to talk about it. If you hide it away and act ashamed, people will assume it’s a shameful thing.
However, my eating disorder struggle was from ages 17-20. It took some time to get back to a truly intuitive, healthy place, but I’ve been in a solid spot for many, many years now. The fact that physicians allowed me to help them with their research, and NEDA asked me to give a testimonial about my volunteering at one of their annual conferences was a testament to the fact that I was no longer struggling. So I was confident that talking about my eating disorder would not be detrimental to my applicant status. It was clear that it was in the past, that it was now being used for good, and something that inspired my passion for medicine. Luckily, it seems most of the schools I applied to agreed!
Why You (Unfortunately) Shouldn’t
In contrast to my eating disorder, my anxiety is something that isn’t in the past. It’s a day to day thing for me. I am able to manage really well, but there are still bad days and it’s always there. And unfortunately most med schools and residencies aren’t cool with that.
I find it completely hypocritical considering the data on medical students and physicians. Recent studies show that over 50% of med students have symptoms of moderate to severe anxiety. Physician depression and anxiety rates exceed the national averages, and doctors have the highest suicide rate of any professional group. It’s clearly not uncommon, and also very likely that some of the same people interviewing you struggle as well. Whether it’s physician personality types or the rigorous training, or some other combination of things doesn’t matter — tons of people in med school, residency, and the work force are dealing with mental health issues.
Regardless, med schools and residencies aren’t comfortable with it yet. It’s understandable, considering anxiety and depression have the potential to have serious effects on those struggling, and that can be translated to patient care. Of course they don’t want to accept someone that might not be successful, and certainly not someone that could cause harm. So in short my answer is no. You shouldn’t talk about it on your applications. While a few places might not see it as a negative, I think the majority would.
Why It Bothers Me
Anxiety and depression are manageable. I am a testiment to that. I have been successful in med school, though I have had to be very self-aware and know how to take care of myself during the really stressful times. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s a priority for me. And I have 100% confidence that it can be for anyone else, as well. I’m not saying all people with mental health issues would be able to handle it, but I don’t ever want it to make someone shy away from their goals. I hate to think that a passionate, intelligent person that could do incredible good as a physician was held back due to a manageable mental health concern.
It’s a tricky topic. Mental health is always one of the leading discussions at national medical education conferences. Everyone is aware of it’s prevalence and wants to address it, and yet there is still the stigma in the application process. I don’t know the right answers, but I can give you my recommendation. Unless it is something that is firmly in the past, that you can speak about as something that inspired you but is no longer any negative part of your life, I wouldn’t bring up your mental health.
I’d love to start a discussion on this! Please share your (kind) thoughts and experiences in the comments.