What to do when your "seed" is a big ol' stigmatizing red flag

Hi everyone. My name is Amanda, I’m 26 and in my first year of a post-bacc. My undergraduate degree is in english and I’m definitely taking the scenic route to medical school. I’m writing because I’ve seen several videos on what to do when mental health is part of your story. Generally, the videos and podcasts I’ve listened to have responded to students wanting to explain specific periods in their application history that may leave admissions committees questioning “what was going on here?”

The plain and simple reason I want to be a doctor is because I lived with unbearable and undiagnosed bipolar disorder until three or four years ago, and psychiatric intervention quite literally saved my life. That’s it. That’s why I want to be a psychiatrist. I’m not ashamed of my story and am passionate about ending mental health stigma. At the same time, I know anyone reading a personal statement that says what I just wrote is probably going to see “HUGE LIABILITY,” and move on to the next applicant.

High rates of both burn-out, mental illness and suicide are a largely unspoken reality in medical education, training and practice. I understand why an admissions committee would have reservations about admitting a student with a history of mental health challenges. At the same time, my mental health doesn’t define me and there is no evidence in my past academic record to suggests I was struggling so intensely. The only reason I would be inclined to include it in a personal statement is because my past is the reason why I want to be a physician. I don’t know if I’ll feel like I’ve submitted my best application if I “tell a colorful truth” (cough lie about why I want to be a doctor). At the same time, if I do submit a personal statement sharing my story, I’ll wonder if every rejection was because I was honest.

If all else fails, I can fall back on the timeless classic: I love science and want to help people.

Thanks for all you do,
Amanda

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Hey Amanda!

Sorry if this reply is a little late to help, but I happened to stumble across your post and hope that you (and anyone else reading it) finds it useful.

In my opinion, your Bipolar diagnosis (and the stigma you mention) is not the main question I see popping out. Rather, the question I have after reading your post is “Why medicine?” I currently work as a counselor and as part of my job am able to help people with mental illnesses (including Bipolar) everyday. I too love science and helping people. And, many mental health workers (myself included) have cited personal struggles with mental illness as the reason they became an LCSW, LMFT, LPC, QMHP, Psychologist (Ph.D/Psy.D), etc. So, while I recognize your concern around the stigma you may encounter, this is not the main concern I see. The main question I have is again, “why become a doctor, as opposed to a mental health worker?”

Concerning your comment about telling “a colorful truth,” I don’t think that this is the way to go. I think that (if nothing else) you need to be true to yourself… and I also feel like Ad Comms can tell when someone is BSing them. So, if your struggles with Bipolar are important to why you became interested in medicine, then talk about them. But, I wouldn’t stop there. Do some self-reflection and identify how you have also discovered an interest in the type of work that doctors do, compared to other kinds of providers.

If it helps kick start your reflection process, I generally think of my story like this… I’ve always loved science, wanted to help people, and enjoyed the clinical setting. Because of my past struggles with mental health concerns I initially pursued an M.A. in Clinical Psychology and became a counselor. But, that “itch” to do more for my clients gnawed at me from the beginning and never really went away. Framing it from the perspective of Maslow’s Hierarchy, as a counselor I help people with ‘higher-level’ psychological needs, but I am not trained (and therefore not legally or ethically allowed) to address their more foundational (physiological) needs. The connection between mental health and physical health is immense (and in my opinion too often segregated). I want to be able to treat my clients/patients as whole individuals, not be forced to focus only on one (albeit important) aspect of their experience. And I feel that the best way for me to do this is by becoming a doctor.

All of that being said, and regardless of how you chose to move forward, I wish you the best of luck.

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I’ve thought about this too. My seed is losing my work partner/best friend to suicide at the beginning of the year and my personal struggles with the aftermath. He was physically injured at the Capitol riot and committed suicide the day after he was medically cleared to return to work. There’s other reasons like I no longer feel a sense of fulfillment with my current career, but the main reason is feeling like I couldn’t do anything to help him.

So now my focus is to become a psychiatrist and work specifically with first responders. I agree with the previous comment by @DWallner. I’ll probably be asked why medicine and not psychology. My response would be that as a physician, I would be better able to address other physiological needs that may arise during clinical work with a mental health patient.

Good luck!

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I think it is also important to remember what Dr. Grey says a lot, “Tell Your Story.” If that means you have to talk about your mental health and thats what brought you to medicine then you have to stay true to that. Telling your story is the most important part and if talking about your mental health is your most authentic self then go for it!

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For anyone interested, Dr. Gray also addressed this post on his Old Premeds Podcast. Check out his answer here: Old PreMeds Podcast Episode 280: Is a “Colorful Truth” Better Than Discussing a Red Flag?