Accepting My Chronic Mental Health Condition as a Disability

When I was diagnosed with Bipolar Type 2 at 22 years old, it felt suffocating. I didn’t see how living with and managing this chronic mental health condition was compatible with the high-powered scientific career I had envisioned for myself. I spent two years trying to find a career outside science that would fulfil me to the same extent, but I couldn’t ignore the siren song of scientific inquiry. When I applied to graduate school, I didn’t have any idea if people like me could succeed. I was accepted into my top choice program, but I felt like I had tricked everyone by pretending that I wasn’t living with a disability.


Picture of Breanna Caruso standing facing and smiling at the camera. There is a large field of rows of pink and yellow tulips. It is a dull day, the clouds in the sky are grey.

In my first year, I applied for the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowships Program, which funds graduate students doing basic research. A big component of the NSF GRFP is the personal statement since this program focuses on funding a researcher, not a research project. I took an immense chance on my application and wrote my personal statement about my mental health journey, discussing the need for people with invisible disabilities to be represented as successful scientists. To my surprise, this moved the reviewers and I won the award. This experience taught me that my disability didn’t need to be a secret, that there were folks out there rooting for me. It gave me the courage to be open and honest about my mental health with my advisor, my lab mates, and my classmates.


I firmly believe that being able to be open about being bipolar has fundamentally changed my PhD journey. By being open and honest with my advisor, I have been able to get the support I need to make progress and succeed as a graduate student. There has certainly been a learning curve to identify what I need during depressive episodes or hypomanic episodes, but I know that I have the freedom to try out different strategies to find what works best for me without jeopardizing my professional goals. I also recognize that I am lucky to have found an advisor that will support me in this particular way. Because not all students are so lucky, I have become very involved in advocating for the needs of underrepresented students by leading efforts to unionize the graduate students at my university and by being the president of the Graduate Student Organization on my campus, which grants me a seat at the table with the Graduate Council where important decisions impacting graduate students are made.


It is my earnest hope that other people living with chronic mental health conditions will be able to look to me as an example of someone who is able to balance their well-being with the demands of graduate school by integrating their identity as a scientist and a disabled person.

We thank Breanna Caruso for submitting her story! Find her on Twitter (@CarusoBreanna). If you'd like to submit a story or piece, anonymously or named, fill out our google form or email us at email@phdbalance.com