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Disclosing Mental Health Conditions in Grad School

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Does anyone have any advice/experience with disclosing a mental health condition or chronic illness to an adviser? I have schizophrenia and it is very well-managed, but I was thinking I might let my adviser know in case I happen to have any relapses in symptoms. I am an incoming Master's student for Fall 2018.

I have been stable for two years now - I take my medication, go to therapy, and see a psychiatrist on a monthly basis, and this has gotten me through the graduate school application process without any issues. I understand graduate school will be challenging, which is why I'm asking these questions now! I am in a MUCH better place than I was in undergrad, where I was forced to disclose and take time off due to psychotic symptoms, but I want to be prepared in case anything happens again.

How should I go about disclosing my condition to my adviser in terms of timing (when to disclose), specificity (how much to disclose), and planning (how to prepare for any problems)?

Thank you in advance for any advice!

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Congrats on getting the schizophrenia under control and working hard on your health! I have a condition with some shared symptoms, and I elected to not tell my supervisors, but I did register with the disability office. I also had to take time off during undergrad due to some major episodes, and am also doing much better these days, but I knew that doing nothing wasn't an option, because if I relapsed I wouldn't be in a state to organize accommodations. 

I have had a really good experience with the disability office, and I recommend seeking them out and getting registered. They can act on your behalf if needed. I haven't told my supervisors, but they know I spent a long time in hospital a while back. If I were to relapse, I would explain as needed. Unfortunately there is a lot of stigma regarding mental health, so I would keep things vague until you get to know them - maybe something like "a few years ago I was really unwell with a chronic medical condition. Things have been under control for a while now, but if become sick again I might need to take some time out to get better. I've spoken to the disability office and will work with them in the worst-case scenario that I get sick again."

I have a friend who disclosed bipolar II to his supervisor, and it went well. But people tend to understand depression much more than psychosis. 

Wishing you a really positive masters experience!

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My advice is not to disclose immediately; unfortunately, there is a lot of stigma and misunderstanding surrounding mental health, so I suggest that you get to know your advisor a bit and build a relationship with them first. Let them get to know you and form an opinion based on your personality, knowledge, and skills, not your health. Of course, if you run into a situation where your health requires attention and it is affecting your performance, you may need to disclose something a little sooner than desired, such as mentioning that you have a health condition that you are managing. How much you choose to disclose may depend on your advisor's personality and your relationship with them. Some advisors are strictly business and don't want to know much about it, some might look negatively at the situation, and others might be quite open to discussing it and providing support. Since you don't know how they'll respond, I would not go into a lot of detail when you first disclose. If you feel comfortable and believe it is necessary or desirable later in your relationship, you can disclose more. This way you can "test the waters" to get a feel for their level of support. 

That being said, my first suggestion is to speak with your school's HR/disability office. This way your situation is documented but confidential in that you don't need to worry about potential discrimination from the department, unless you choose to share with them. However, some people develop close relationships with their advisors and there may be times where it's preferable to discuss. I think this will really come down to your own intuition and preference for the situation. If you choose to disclose, you can jot down a few things you'd like to share, sleep on it, and make sure you're still comfortable with the level of disclosure the next day. Practice the conversation in advance. Then choose the right moment when you're feeling comfortable and you know you will have adequate time to discuss with your advisor. Keep in mind that although mental illness is more common than it is discussed in academia, advisors aren't always prepared to respond appropriately when learning about a student's personal situation, especially if it comes out of the blue (i.e., there's no performance issue to serve as an indicator). If the conversation doesn't seem to go well, know that they may need time to process and decide how to respond and support you. I think most advisors really do care about their students and want to help them succeed.

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Agree with others that you should register with the disability office of your school, and that you should disclose vaguely. Unfortunately, schizophrenia is a mental illness that is highly stigmatized and often labeled as craziness. Unless your advisor happens to know this illness well enough, e.g. someone close to him/her has the illness, it is best to avoid a full disclose. Something alone the line like "a chronic medical condition that may relapse in future", like @lemma said, would give enough information for your advisor to know that you may be unwell at some stage. It would be better to demonstrate that you can do a good job before you consider disclosure, so your performance is not judged by your health. 

All the best! 

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Hello everyone. Thank you so much for your advice! I will definitely register with my school's disability office - I did this in undergrad and it was a lifesaver during the bad times. 

I am starting my program next week. I already have a good relationship with my adviser from working with them over the summer, but I'm thinking I'll still wait to disclose until I know for sure. I will keep the details to a minimum if I do decide to talk to them about my condition. 

Thanks again for your responses, they are much appreciated!

 

 

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I regret not seeing this earlier, but I agree to register with the disability office. That said, as to reporting conditions, it... well... depends. And to be honest, you'll likely get completely different answers from different people.

I've completely and openly reported my mental health issues to my professors, or at least when necessary (i.e., when I work with them more closely, be it as an advisee or course student). The way I perceive it, I'd rather disclose before issues potentially arise, even if they never arise, because I see it as bad form if I bring it up after a potential, future occurrence.

Will reporting to your faculty members affect how they perceive you? Definitely. But not disclosing at all is also problematic if an issue were to arise. It's a bit of lose/lose, and only you can say what decision is best for you and your situation.

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Hello,

congrats on having your health under control. That's a big achievement. I also live with MI (another diagnosis than schizophrenia however), and have disclosed it publicly. So far, it's going well. It is also not impacting my studies for now but I have done steps to get my situation under control. I am in the social work field, so it's different and people tend to be more accepting of these type of things. However, stigma is still a thing. I wouldn't fully disclose your situation. I would avoid talking about the specific diagnosis that you have. I think what's been said above is good advice. 

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A consideration for those contemplating disclosing a mental illness.

You have very little to no way of knowing if a department has had experiences with mentally ill faculty members, administrators, and graduate students and if those experiences have resulted in greater self education, policy revision, and empathy or an unspoken consensus to avoid those kinds of experiences in the future. The latter frame of mind does not automatically mean that a disclosure is going to encounter less than professional behavior. However, one can be treated professionally, still get screwed over, and never have any way of knowing that your disclosure was at the core of the reasons why.

TL/DR. Know the recent history of your department before disclosing a mental illness.

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