Should Student Discuss His Depression in his College Essay?

Question: My question is about my son's Common Application essay. In it he discloses being diagnosed with depression a little over a year ago. I think it's a touching, optimistic piece of writing, but it has my husband worried. Would this be a deal-killer for colleges?

You and your husband can call a tie here. I'm asked this question—or similar ones—fairly often, and my standard reply is that I like to review each case individually. In some instances, I feel that an essay that discloses depression (or other mental health concerns) is worthwhile, but in many situations, I recommend that the student should stay mum. Here are some of the factors that go into the advising process:

--Will there be any “flags" on the student's transcript or elsewhere in his application which suggest that something is amiss? For instance, are grades erratic? Was there one atypically weak semester or year? Was the student frequently absent? Will recommendation letters from the school counselor or teachers refer, even vaguely, to frequent absences, missed assignments, erratic performance, or “personal problems"?

--How much is the depression likely to affect the student's adjustment to—and performance in—college?

--Will the student be receiving ongoing therapy once in college? If so, will this be happening at or near home? In the same city/community where the college is located? On the college campus itself through the school's health services?

--Does the essay state or imply that the depression had made the student angry at others or likely to harm himself? The latter includes not only possible suicide attempts but also other types of damaging behavior such as drug or alcohol abuse (or refusing to take prescribed medications), eating disorders, etc.

--Is the applicant a strong candidate for the college in question or a more borderline one?

Of all of the considerations listed above, the first one is really the biggie. If colleges are going to know (or at least guess) that a candidate experienced some sort of problem during high school, it makes sense to explain what that problem was or is. Ideally, however, the explanation should also include assurances that the problem is either over or is sufficiently under control so that the student can succeed in college and will not be a threat to himself or to others.

Although colleges are not allowed to discriminate against applicants with disabilities, the Virginia Tech tragedy definitely served as turning point on most campuses. Administrators (including admission officials) became more worried that students who struggle with mental-health issues of any sort can be dangerous to the school community. Although colleges certainly didn't stop accepting applicants who had been treated for mental-health concerns, they definitely scrutinized those applications more carefully, and I'm sure that some candidates who might have been admitted in an earlier era were ultimately denied.

Thus, if there will be no signs in the application that the candidate has suffered from depression, I usually suggest to students and their parents that this NOT be mentioned in the essay (or anywhere). Some admission officials will not be at all prejudiced against candidates who self-disclose, but some will … so why take that chance?

Well, actually, there are good reasons for taking that chance. In some cases, the candidate says, “This is me, and if a college won't accept me for who I am, another college will." This approach is understandable and honorable but can indeed impact admission outcomes. Yet in those situations where a student will need significant support, it often makes sense to be candid during the admission process. This can help the student to end up at a place where appropriate services are available.

Another thought: If your son does decide to submit his depression essay, he might want to consider using it for “Additional Information" rather than as his primary personal statement. He can then write his main essay about something unrelated … perhaps an interest, talent, etc. This sends a message to admission officials that proclaims, “Yes, I have battled depression, but it doesn't define who I am."

If your son is on the fence about his essay, he can find many posts on College Confidential that discuss this concern. This thread, below, stems from a U.S. News Article which actually focuses on a former counseling client of mine who did decide to reveal her depression in her essays. See:

As confusing and even capricious as it can seem, I often find that the crazy admission process leads to a meant-to-be conclusion. So, whichever path your son chooses when it comes to sending the depression essay or not, you may find that it takes him to exactly where he was supposed to end up all along. Best wishes to all of you as you continue to navigate this maze.

(posted 11/07/10)