In a recent New York Times op-ed, guest writer Emi Neitfield reflected on the dilemma she faced when applying to college in the 2009-2010 school year: whether or not to disclose her mental health issues in her applications. Between ages 13-15, Neitfield was hospitalized multiple times, spent nine months in a treatment facility, and changed schools several times as a result of her mental health struggles. But she didn’t know whether she should share any of that with the colleges she applied to.
Neitfield worked with an independent college consultant who advised her to disclose everything when she applied early decision to Yale. She was denied, prompting her high school counselor to call the university’s admissions office to inquire about the decision. The counselor explained to Neitfield that although she was academically competitive, her mental health history was “daunting.” Further, Neitfield’s college consultant concluded that because there had recently been several suicides on college campuses, Yale was not willing to accept an applicant it deemed high risk.
The college consultant advised Neitfield not to disclose her mental health issues in subsequent applications. Instead she “wrote a simple explanation for why [she] had changed schools.” She applied to 10 more colleges, including Harvard, which admitted her.
For her article, Neitfield interviewed college admissions officers, high school students, and school counselors about this topic. She even reached out to the consultant she had worked with. These individuals had mixed opinions about whether, and how much, applicants should disclose about their mental health. Neitfield wrote, “Officially, colleges say that students can share as much about their mental health as feels comfortable. But in practice, it seems clear that schools are nervous about accepting adolescents who divulge psychiatric histories.”
Having spent over 16 years helping students with the college admissions process, I don’t think that seems clear at all. While I would never push a student to share their mental health challenges with colleges, there are certain instances in which doing so is appropriate or even necessary. Just this year, Discovery College Consulting worked with three seniors who included such information in their applications. One used the Common Application’s Additional Information section to explain that she missed a few weeks of school to participate in an intensive treatment program for anxiety and subsequently dropped two classes upon her return; another replied to the common app’s question about the impacts of COVID-19 by describing how the pandemic and remote learning negatively affected her mental health and her grades; and the third wrote her main essay on overcoming mental health struggles (unprompted by me). All three have been accepted to college.
I think it’s important to point out that Neitfield applied to college 13 years ago. While there is still considerable stigma around mental illness in this country, we have come a long way since then. Additionally, it’s no secret that adolescent mental health issues have been increasing over the last several years, especially in the wake of COVID-19. Colleges recognize that students who are enrolling today may need more support than those who attended ten or even five years ago, and many are adding programs, services, and staff to better meet students’ needs.
I understand students may be concerned that if they include information about their mental health in their applications, a college may deny them because it sees them as too much of a liability. But if that’s the case, would you want to go to that school, anyway? Don’t you want to go somewhere that accepts and values you for who you are and that can provide you with the resources you’ll need to be successful? I know I would.