Talking about Mental Health in Your College Admissions Essay

When applying to colleges, you may wonder whether discussing mental health in your essays is appropriate. While there is no firm rule about this, the following can help you make an informed decision. At the end of the day, though, it is up to you and your parents or guardians.

How common are mental health issues among high school students?

According to a 2022 study by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), among adolescents aged 12-17 in the United States during 2018-2019, 15.1% experienced major depressive episodes, 36.7% had persistent feelings of sadness, and 8.9% attempted suicide. 

Mental health difficulties have become the leading cause of disability for high schoolers and the most frequent cause of poor outcomes among young adults. Clearly, mental health disorders are extremely common in today’s youth. 

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When mental health gets in the way of success

The pandemic has worsened the preexisting mental health crisis among high school students. According to a 2020 study conducted by UNICEF, 46% of adolescents have become less motivated to engage in activities they previously enjoyed. This loss of motivation led to less involvement in school activities and poorer school performance. 

Mental health disorders, in particular, can impact high school performance. For example, students with social phobia, also known as social anxiety disorder, are twice as likely to receive a failing grade than students without it. Social phobia can also prevent students from engaging in extracurricular activities. 

Similarly, clinical depression can be disastrous to students’ well-being, making it hard for students to get out of bed, much less keep their grades up. When their mental health struggles are severe, some students find that time off from school can be needed for mental health treatment. 

Missing school for mental health 

One of the most obvious ways that mental health affects student outcomes is increased absenteeism. According to a 2016 study by the U.S. Department of Education, in 2015-2016 over 7 million (about 16% of all) American high school students missed 15 or more days of school. Such absences are often tied to mental health troubles, which account for 13.4% of total absences (Fornander & Kearney, 2020). 

Absence due to mental health can be an important and healthy way for students to improve their mental well-being.  According to a survey by Mental Health America, over half of students believe that taking a mental health break from school or work would be helpful to them. The importance of mental health breaks is even recognized by some state legal codes. Minnesota has recognized the legitimacy of leaves of absence for mental health since 2009, a policy that other states have also adopted in the years following (Gewertz, 2021). 

For some students—especially those suffering from severe conditions such as suicidality, substance abuse problems, and eating disorders—taking long-term time off to get mental health treatment can be the only way to effectively treat their issues. Unfortunately, this can leave gaps in students’ academic records that might concern college admissions committees. 

Do you have to disclose a mental health diagnosis in a college application?

No, you do not. To prevent discrimination against students with mental health difficulties, it is illegal for U.S. colleges to request this information from you. It’s therefore completely up to the individual to decide whether to disclose a mental health disorder or mental health leave of absence in a college application or essay. 

So, should you talk about mental health absences in a college essay? 

The short answer is, no, generally not. Because college essays are so brief—the Common App personal statement is only 650 words, about a page and a quarter—students should use the limited space in their college essays to highlight 

their strengths. Given how prevalent mental health issues are, having a mental health disorder is unlikely to make a student stand out—and it may be viewed as a weakness.

Unfortunately, stigmas about mental health still exist, and, while colleges can’t legally discriminate against applicants for having mental health disorders, they still do so, as demonstrated by a 2019 investigation into the University of Florida’s admissions practices that found admissions officers to be flagging applications that acknowledge mental disorders to be flagged for additional review (Jaschik, 2019).

Exceptions for discussing mental health in a college essay:

  • If your high school transcript reflects absences from school that would raise even greater concerns if left unexplained.

Extended or frequent absences can themselves be reasons for a school not to admit an applicant. In many cases, it is better to disclose that the reason for such absences was mental health-related than to let it seem like a student was simply lazy or indifferent.     

  • If you are applying to become a mental health counselor or social worker.

When a student’s mental health diagnosis leads them to discover an academic or pre-professional interest, it can make sense to mention that diagnosis in a college admissions essay. Still, students should make sure to highlight how these issues motivated them to become better students and how it inspires them to pursue careers as a mental health professional. It may even make sense to discuss the topic as part of a personal statement or “Why Major?” essay. 

  • If you want to write about the strength mental illness has given you.

This is perhaps the trickiest exception to the general rule of avoiding discussion of mental health. But, if having a mental health disorder is central to a student’s life story and they feel that their personal statement would be unreflective or incoherent without it, they should reframe their diagnosis as a strength. Rather than focusing on how their condition reflected them negatively, students writing about mental health, for this reason, should focus for the overwhelming majority of their essay on how they overcame their struggles.  

Where to disclose mental health absences on a college application

If a student feels that they must discuss their mental health,  they should do so in the “Additional Information” section of the college application, not the Personal Statement. Depending on the application, students may also want to attach a note from a psychiatrist or therapist. 

However, before disclosing their mental health diagnosis on a college application, students should get advice from a college counselor on whether or not to make the disclosure. 

The bottom line:

Despite social progress, stigmas around mental health disorders still exist. If a student decides to disclose mental health information on the Common Application or another college application, they should proceed with caution and make sure to seek guidance from a trusted counselor. Remember, Personal Statement’s purpose is to highlight a student’s achievements, strengths, and uniqueness, and it is ultimately up to the student whether to discuss their mental health. 

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