Thursday, December 15, 2011

Should You Answer Questions About Your Emotional Health?

[Yet another article that was written for Yahoo and never published there. This one was provoked by a letter to Dear Abby; I answered it as someone who's advertised jobs, rooms for rent, etc., in newspapers without asking about people's emotional health, and come to realize that perhaps it would have been wise to ask.]

Psychological counsellors often advise people to tell everyone about their experience with psychotherapy. No points for guessing that when “normal neurotic” types who have friends, jobs, and families tell everyone that we’ve consulted counsellors, we help relieve the stigma associated with any kind of “emotional problems.” No points for guessing that the manufacturers of psychiatric medications would like to see more word-of-mouth advertising for their products, too.


So, it’s not surprising that someone who asked a popular advice columnist this question received the cheerful, almost flippant advice, “Tell them everybody has emotional baggage!”

The trouble here is that this columnist seems unfamiliar with questionnaires that demand yes/no or numeric answers. Even if you want to advertise the kind of psychological help you have received, a computer questionnaire won’t give you room to do so.

Some questionnaire items may be specific. “Have you consulted (a) a psychological counsellor, (b) a psychiatric social worker, (c) a psychiatrist? (a) within the past year, (b) within the past five years, (c) ever? Have you used antidepressants...” and so on. If you are sincerely seeking a job, apartment, or personal relationship, you must answer these questions truthfully. Others will know you were asked these questions and will not look favorably on a deceitful answer.

However, as described in the advice column, the questionnaire may ask something more vague like “Are you emotionally healthy and mentally stable?” Such vague questions deliberately leave room for deliberate misinterpretation.

What someone asking this question wants to know is whether you are (a) delusional, or (b) violent, or (c) using mood-altering medications that might cause you to become delusional and/or violent.

If you were clinically depressed in the past, but aren’t now, you could legitimately “just say no” to a question like this. Depression has been described as the common cold of psychology. If you had a cold last winter, but don’t have one now, you could honestly describe yourself as physically healthy. Likewise, if you were depressed last year, but are not in a hospital or taking medication now, you can honestly describe yourself as emotionally healthy.

If you're feeling "down," but not suicidal, while filling out the questionnaire...that's normal. Most people find the kind of jobs that require people to fill out forms, and the "prospective matches" who've lied about their eligibility for online dating purposes, somewhat depressing.

Of course, if you’ve been depressed in the past, there’s a chance that you might become depressed in the future and disappoint your prospective employer, landlord, dates, etc. However, if you have not been depressed in the past, there’s still a chance that you might become depressed in the future and disappoint those people. In fact, the chance that anyone might become psychotic at some time in the future is about as great as the chance that anyone might develop diabetes or kidney stones or Parkinson’s Disease at some time in the future. Life is not always perfectly predictable. People who review questionnaires know that; or, if they don’t, they should.

So, although one should never tell outright lies, even on a computer questionnaire, it’s ethical to interpret a vague question in an optimistic way. If you think people need to know that, although you’ve never been clinically depressed, you reserve the right to let a few tears fall into the computer when you have to process data from a company with which your late lamented grandfather used to do business, you can always explain those details during the live interview.