Mental Illness & College Admissions

While Naomi Osaka’s decision to withdraw from the French Open for mental health concerns reignited the public conversation about mental health, it isn’t a topic that’s been hiding in the shadows in recent years. Mental health has become a mainstream topic of discourse, and it’s rapidly becoming de-stigmatized and even prioritized. However, choosing to disclose or not disclose a mental illness during the college admissions process is still a tricky situation. Is it a process that’s fair to those who are struggling?


The short answer, sadly, is no. While the Americans with Disabilities Act “prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life” including schools, there are still countless ways in which colleges see mental illness and its effects as strikes against an applicant. A college admissions counselor would never explicitly say they’re rejecting someone because they revealed they have major depressive disorder; instead, they’d cite reasons like a lack of involvement in extracurriculars or a failed course ­­– which, as you might imagine, are consequences of said major depressive disorder.


Additionally, as Sara Harberson notes, many of the steps in the admissions process are more difficult for applicants struggling with mental illness. Harberson writes, “For colleges that offer interviews, students are expected to sign up, arrive excited, and thrive in that setting.” Though that may be nothing for some applicants, an applicant with an anxiety or mood disorder may not flourish in this situation – or even show up for an interview at all. Despite an interview technically not being required, rejecting the opportunity or not putting your best foot forward are strikes against an applicant.


If you’re an applicant with a mental illness, you might be wary of disclosing it on a college application. While that decision is an extremely personal one, many college coaches will encourage it if a mental illness has affected your academic performance. But, of course, every aspect of your college application should be used to your advantage… and that includes this disclosure. So, what are some “angles” you can consider?


  • Use it to show how you can handle hard things and overcome obstacles. Mental illness is one of the hardest things a person can face. How has it made you a stronger and more resilient human being? How did you recover from the “failure”?
  • Talk about how your mental illness makes you extraordinary. Everyone has something they struggle with. Quite frankly, most remarkable human beings are “off” in certain ways. How are you remarkable? How has your mental illness changed the way you look at the world and the people around you?
  • Keep it vague. Mental illness is illness, period. If you were out of school because you had a physical ailment, you might not necessarily say the specific physical ailment you had. You can simply say something along the lines of, “I struggled with a medical condition my sophomore year that negatively impacted my grades.” While explicitly stating that you struggled with mental illness shouldn’t count against you, it’s a sad truth that in the college admissions process, it might.


Most importantly, it’s crucial that you proactively take care of your mental health through the stressful process of college applications and far beyond. Sometimes, talking to someone can make all the difference. If you’ve visited the Enrichery’s Memorial West location, you may have also spotted our neighbors and friends, West Houston Counseling & Psychology. WHCP offers counseling services for tweens, teens, and young adults.

Collectively, we must also continue talking about mental health until the college admissions process gets with the program and, in Harberson’s words, stop using it “as a justification for longstanding discrimination.” Check out our older blog post, Let’s Talk About Mental Health, for ways you can keep the conversation going.