When applications ask about your psychiatric history

Sam is young man is applying for a summer program, a real resume builder.  Among other things, the application asks if he has been treated for a psychiatric disorder.  In fact, he’s seen a therapist and he’s felt anxious at times.  His internist gave him some Lexapro samples and he feels better.  The symptoms of his problems have been limited to his own subjective distress.  His anxiety is not something that has disabled him, in fact he has not missed a day of school in 3 years — and then for the flu– he sees his therapist on the weekends, and no one would know he’s been uncomfortable unless he told them.  He’s never been in a hospital, he’s ultra-reliable, and he has great grades and extracurriculars.  Any way you look at it, Sam is an energetic guy on the road to success.

What should he write on the form?  It’s a yes/no check box, no questions or place to clarify, so if he says yes, well, that could mean he has some subjective anxiety, or it could mean he has attention deficit problems, or it could mean he has been hospitalized 6 times after becoming violent, or has a severe mental illness.  He’s worried that his anxiety will throw him into a subset of applicants that the committee would rather not deal with: why choose someone for a project who has a mental illness if another equally qualified applicant is available without this issue to address?

Sam’s mother say he should check “yes.”  He has been in treatment and he has a diagnosis and he takes a medicine.  He has a psychiatric disorder and he needs to be honest.

Sam’s father says that the question defies the spirit of what the committee wants to know.  They want to know, Dad presumes,  if there will be issues or problems or things they might need to accommodate, and there is no reason to believe that Sam’s problem will interfere with his ability to negotiate life in a competitive or stressful environment.  Sam, he contends, does not belong in the same category as someone who has attempted suicide, been hospitalized, missed work, or behaved in a disruptive or dysfunctional manner. If anything, Sam’s anxiety drives him to focus and achieve and to be very conscientious.  He’s not ill, his father says, he’s just more anxious on a spectrum of normal anxiety.

I want to know why forms get to ask such questions and put people in the awkward situation of having to answer something that is none of anyone’s business versus being dishonest.  It seems that if someone wants to know this, it might be asked in terms of “Do you have any health issues that might require any special accommodation?”  Is there a limit to what random forms can ask and whether you’re behaving unethically if you choose not to answer their questions or answer it less then completely?  Sam tried leaving the question blank, but the computer wouldn’t let him submit the form without checking all the boxes first.  Can they ask if you have deviant sexual fantasies?  If you’ve ever committed a crime (regardless of whether you’ve been charged or convicted)?  If you say provocative things on your blog?

Dinah Miller is a psychiatrist who blogs at Shrink Rap and co-author of Shrink Rap: Three Psychiatrists Explain Their Work.

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