Skeptic reports on the personal vs the professional. Discover magazine. October 2020.
A thought-provoking article by Andrew R. Devendorf asks whether a personal experience of mental illness is a strength or a weakness in clinical psychology.
Devendorf explains that applicants for graduate courses in psychology are often advised against mentioning their own mental health struggles, or those of their family, during the application process.
For instance, one guide called “Uncensored Advice for Applying to Graduate School in Clinical Psychology” states that an application should not contain “information that is widely inappropriate and unprofessional. Applicants who disclose their own psychopathology, for example, are often ‘screened out’.”
Devendorf tells how when he was applying for a research scholarship in clinical psychology, he decided to disclose that his brother had died by suicide at the age of 27. Devendorf felt that this fact was relevant, as it had deepened his interest in depression and his desire to help people with that condition.
Devendorf didn’t get the scholarship, and one of the evaluating committee members told him that the reference to his brother had hurt the application.
They mentioned the other committee members expressed discomfort in reading my application with comments such as this: “He has the awards, publications, and research experience, [so] why would he feel the need to share this?”
These members reportedly voiced disapproval for my “oversharing” and were unwilling to discuss my application further. They viewed my personal experiences as a potential bias harming my objectivity as a young scientist.
Devendorf goes on to argue that the stigma within psychology against disclosing one’s own experiences needs to end. He points out that personal experience can offer many strengths to a psychologist, such as increased insight into mental illness and more compassion for other sufferers.
Being someone who has been a mental health researcher while suffering from mental illness myself, I found Devendorf’s article very interesting, and I’d recommend it to anyone involved in clinical psychology.
I generally agree with everything Devendorf says, although I do think that there is a problem if someone goes looking for a better understanding of their own mental health by seeking a career in psychology. That’s not what psychology is about, and I’m afraid that anyone who goes into psychology hoping for self-knowledge (or self-treatment) is likely to be disappointed.
So I can understand why applications get rejected if they give the impression that the applicant is hoping to do self-focussed “me-search” rather than research.
But just because someone has experience of mental illness doesn’t mean they’re going into psychology for the wrong reasons. If the stigma of “me-search” is leading perfectly good applications (like Devendorf’s) to be rejected, then there is something wrong there.