Why the DMV Denied a Driver’s License to a Teen With Depression

Beth Greenfield
·Senior Editor
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A controversial question on Texas driver’s license applications regarding psychiatric disorders almost cost one teen (not pictured) her license. (Photo: Getty Images)

A Texas teenager is raising awareness about mental illness this week as she speaks out about her recent experience at the DMV — in which her application for a driver’s license was initially halted when she disclosed her diagnosis of depression.

“It’s just asking have you ever been diagnosed with a mental illness and I said ‘yes’ because I have been, I’m not ashamed of that,“ Grace Klam told KHOU in Houston about the very personal question on the driver’s license application form. (It asks, specifically, “Within the past two years, have you been diagnosed with, been hospitalized for or are you now receiving treatment for a psychiatric disorder?”) She answered honestly, and then elaborated for the clerk, explaining that she’d been diagnosed with depression and was on medication. Grace says she was then told to come back at another time for more testing.

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The Texas Department of Public Safety, which handles the issuance of driver’s licenses, did not immediately respond to Yahoo Parenting’s request for comment. But a spokesperson for the agency told KHOU that Grace would be getting her license, and that the delay was due to “some kind of misinterpretation by their staff.” Still, local attorney George Parnham told the station the question seemed “highly inappropriate” and unclear, and that “the individual who is being truthful is not told about the consequences of checking a particular box.”

Grace, meanwhile, has said she does not regret how she answered. "I hope we can raise awareness that it’s not shameful to have a disability, whether it be physical or mental,” she said.

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The issue of driver’s license applications asking potential drivers about mental illness — something that varies from state to state — has been raised before, including in Texas, where critics have called it archaic and invasive, and blamed the question for adding to the already hard-to-break stigma of mental health issues.

“It is ridiculous,” state Rep. Garnet Coleman, who has been public about his bipolar disorder and tried to have the question removed, told the Houston Chronicle in 2014. “It is an antiquated way of viewing mental illness.” Indeed, it was added to paperwork in 1970. Other states that ask similar questions include Virginia and Florida.

According to Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law’s senior staff attorney Emily Read, Texas’s question violates the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which states that “no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity.” Still, Read advises applicants to fill out forms honestly. “They can assert their rights under the ADA if a truthful answer results in discrimination,” she tells Yahoo Parenting.

The question is also controversial on applications for employment and for college. Regarding the latter, some experts caution staying away from any mentions altogether for fear of wariness on the part of admissions officials; others advise it could help explain spotty grades and a history of behavioral issues that might otherwise be discovered.  

Gyl Switzer, public policy director for the Texas branch of the national Mental Health America, told the Houston Chronicle that the mental health question should be removed from driver’s license forms. "At best it is irrelevant,” she said, “and at worst it just adds to stigma and discrimination.” When answering yes, applicants must submit their medical records for review and final approval.

The Texas forms come with a warning that lying on questions could bring about criminal charges, hefty fines, or jail time. Still, officials noted that they assume most people lie.

And that might not be the worst way to go when it comes to doing what’s best for oneself — especially for teens, who are particularly vulnerable, according to adolescent psychologist Barbara Greenberg. “It may sometimes be TMI,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a stigma about mental illness in this country.” Adolescents should be mindful of that, Greenberg notes, and also think about the following: whether or not disclosing will be beneficial to them, that it may very well be held against them, and that they may not get the reaction they were hoping for.

“They should be proud of themselves and be willing to talk about it,” she says, “but know that not everyone shares that comfort level.”

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