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How to explain my taking time off during undergrad - do I reveal it was due to bipolar disorder?

radrobyn

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May 14, 2020
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Hello all,

I'm looking for advice on what to write in my med school apps on my taking time off during undergrad. I took almost a year off school (two quarters) to deal with mental illness, which we eventually figured out was bipolar disorder. I'm transgender and starting hormone therapy triggered a wild cycling of emotions. At first we thought it was just the changing body chemistry, but eventually a doctor explained that the hormone therapy likely awoke my predisposition for BPD. After finally getting a diagnosis, I've been medicated and have completely stabilized. I've since returned to school and have done very well.

Med schools are obviously going to see that I've taken time off (I also had to withdraw from some classes in the process and that's also reflected on my transcript). My options regarding what to write to explain my absence are as follows:
  1. Completely write-off the time as being due to "personal/family issues"
  2. Cover-up and say that I took the time to focus on my transition
  3. Vaguely write about health issues that came about due to my transition and how I did a lot of self-reflection and healing in the process that ultimately made me a better person
  4. Be totally transparent about my transition and the disorder it prompted, and explain how it contributed to me being resolute about my decision to pursue medicine
I go to Stanford, have a 4.0 GPA, am heavily involved in research, and have strong ECs (plus you could say I get a "minority boost" for being trans). Had all the mental health stuff not happened I feel would have been competitive at "top-tier" (whatever that means) medical schools. I'm worried now that my chances may be numbered.

On the one hand, I feel like being brutally honest could maybe even further strengthen my story. I learned so much from my experiences that I could talk about, and it truly did contribute to my desire to enter medicine, maybe even psychiatry. I'm concerned that if I'm not honest, admissions folks will be skeptical about what happened and that'll scare them off. On the other hand, they may view my illness as a liability/a sign that I won't do well in medical school, despite having stabilized and done well in undergrad since then. Either way, it raises some red flags.

Any recommendations? My brain is telling me to only tell a partial-truth while my heart wants to tell-all. Not sure which to listen to.
 
Jun 11, 2010
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Honestly, having lost too many student due to mental health issues, whenever I see either post like this, or an app with such a mention, I involuntarily suck in my breath. This is because med school is a furnace and can even break healthy students. Your 4.0 GPA is a testament that will allay fears, though.

I still recommend that you just say "health issues." We can't ask you about that any further. HIPAA and all that.
 
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wysdoc

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Why do you think you even have to mention you took time off? You are a making an issue out of nothing. move on
Doesn't AMCAS app ask if there was any interruption in your education? A gap in the grades/terms attended would show up. TMDSAS app asks this question and will ask you to explain any gaps of more than 3 months. I agree with the advice of listing medical/health leave and no further explanation needed.
 
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deleted480308

Don’t even bring it up. If they ask, say you wanted to focus on some personal things and that time really helped you perform once you got back

I wouldbever disclose mental health stuff to an admission committee if I could avoid it
 
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gonnif

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Doesn't AMCAS app ask if there was any interruption in your education? A gap in the grades/terms attended would show up. TMDSAS app asks this question and will ask you to explain any gaps of more than 3 months. I agree with the advice of listing medical/health leave and no further explanation needed.
AMCAS does not. A few school secondaries do, but most just ask "is there anything you want to tell us." Most students in college are no longer 18 years old from HS to College in 4 years with no gaps. People break, change colleges, go part time, etc., especially due to finances. Taking a gap is not an issue
 
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wysdoc

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AMCAS does not. A few school secondaries do, but most just ask "is there anything you want to tell us." Most students in college are no longer 18 years old from HS to College in 4 years with no gaps. People break, change colleges, go part time, etc., especially due to finances. Taking a gap is not an issue
Thanks for the info on the AMCAS app differences.
 
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bulldogsm

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Dec 11, 2018
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A couple clarifications might be helpful. Although there's obviously no need to extra disclose a non-currently relevant health concern, it is fairly common for the purposes of a medical license or hospital credentialing to come across the query "Do you have any conditions that may impact your ability to fully practice etc etc" and I've also seen "Do you have any history of emotional or psychiatric etc etc". Although these sorts of 'how often do you beat your spouse' questions are very common and hopefully easy to respond to, I would advise the OP to have a very clear understanding of how they respond to these queries and why because if there is ever a direct inquiry, you want to be absolutely clear as to why you answered the way you did.

Also, clearly HIPAA has nothing whatsoever to do with someone voluntarily disclosing to others their own health history. Major pet peeve is how so many don't understand what HIPAA actually requires which given this audience we shouldn't encourage misunderstandings. Biggest face palm is one doc sends a pt to another doc for consult or to the hospital but doesn't send records. Ugh.
 

Moko

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For application purposes, I echo what others have said: do not disclose your diagnosis of bipolar disorder. There is unfortunately still too much stigma attached to this diagnosis. If you are asked about this directly, stating your transition is more than sufficient. Once you are in medical school, be sure to prioritize your mental health and establish close follow-up with a psychiatrist and therapist. If need be, accommodations can be given to ensure you successfully complete medical school. Just my thoughts.
it is fairly common for the purposes of a medical license or hospital credentialing to come across the query "Do you have any conditions that may impact your ability to fully practice etc etc" and I've also seen "Do you have any history of emotional or psychiatric etc etc". Although these sorts of 'how often do you beat your spouse' questions are very common and hopefully easy to respond to, I would advise the OP to have a very clear understanding of how they respond to these queries and why because if there is ever a direct inquiry, you want to be absolutely clear as to why you answered the way you did.
To add on: state licensure questions do vary quite significantly, with some states only peripherally touching on the topic of mental health. In these states, one can go through the licensing process without disclosing their mental health history as long as the underlying condition is well controlled. Physician-Friendly States for Mental Health: A Review of Medical Boards | Pamela Wible MD
 
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radrobyn

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May 14, 2020
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Thank you all for the helpful feedback! Sounds like the consensus is to not disclose any diagnosis but perhaps reflect on what I learned from "generally-defined health issues related to my transition" in a secondary essay. Very appreciative!
 
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asdfangina

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Thank you all for the helpful feedback! Sounds like the consensus is to not disclose any diagnosis but perhaps reflect on what I learned from "generally-defined health issues related to my transition" in a secondary essay. Very appreciative!

I would also edit or delete your original post If I was you since it’s pretty identifying. Can’t imagine there’s too many people that fit your specific profile that you posted.
 

BlackMathMajor

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Agree with Goro's advice. If you turn out to get a sky-high MCAT it's less of a risk, that superstar-level performace allays fears somewhat...but there is more to be lost than gained. Just say you've dealt with health issues. If you want to write about it in challenge essays, say you dealt with transition-related health issues. It's likely that people will assume the issues were physical, rather than mental, in nature.
 
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