Will Your Depression Diagnosis Protect You From Employment Discrimination?


Considering telling your boss you are mentally ill? Make sure you know your rights.(ISTOCKPHOTO)

Like most people with depression and other mental illnesses, Keris Myrick, 46, had trouble at work. In one job, at a university, she asked her boss for a flexible schedule as she coped with a relapse. "My depression was like a tumbleweed, getting bigger and bigger," Myrick recalls. "Then I went into the hospital."

When she came back to work two weeks later, things were not going well. She was on a new drug that made her feel tired, and she didn't think she could work her morning hours. She contacted the Office of Disability Employment Policy in Washington, D.C., about her rights, which she broached in a letter to the university's HR department. But she wasn't able to arrive at a solution and eventually found a new job. "It was a nightmare," she says.

What are your legal rights?
Rights for people with mental disability can be a nightmare for lawyers, as well. "In cases that go to litigation, courts overwhelmingly side with the employers," says Deirdre Smith, the director of a legal aid clinic at the University of Maine. "Mental illness is an invisible disability so many places, but not at work, where the emphasis is on social interaction. There you have to be a team player who has good communication skills. Not having these skills is often a characteristic of mental illness."

It's a cruel irony that employment—so crucial for a person's self-esteem and ability to function—is also so difficult for people with mental health problems to secure. Heather Stuart, PhD, a professor of community health and epidemiology at Queen's University, in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, calls it double jeopardy.

"To be excluded from the workforce not only creates material deprivation but also erodes self-confidence, creates a sense of isolation and marginalization and is a key risk factor for mental disability," Stuart has written. "For people with a serious mental disorder, employment is an important stepping stone to recovery."

Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, private employers with 15 or more employees are required to provide "reasonable accomodations" for people with a disabling mental illness. However, there are loopholes in the law that you should be aware of.

Next Page: Job loss leads to low self-esteem

[ pagebreak ]Job loss leads to low self-esteem
But even workplaces that attempt to accommodate the mentally disabled sometimes have a hard time retaining their employees. Glenn Koons, 50, was working at Staples when another employee learned he suffered from bipolar disorder and started teasing and bullying. Even though Koons had a company-appointed job coach to help with problems like this, he quit. He regrets it now.

"That's what I always did in jobs when I couldn't get along—I just quit," he says. "I could've talked to my supervisor. Turns out this guy was leaving in two weeks. If I hadn't just quit, if I'd found out I just had to stick it out for two weeks, things would've turned out differently." His self-esteem plummeted and he drifted until he found another job.

Unemployment among the mentally ill is high, estimated at between 40%-60% for people with major depression and up to 90% for people with serious psychiatric conditions, such as schizophrenia.

For some fortunate people with a mental illness, work is a welcoming place that provides emotional and financial stability. "I'm blessed in that I work in a place where people get it," says Laura Gilmartin, 38, an office manager in Skokie, Illinois. "There was a time when I couldn't work for six months, but they brought me back afterward, knowing that I'm a little off my rocker. I do everything I can to make sure I can be there for them because I so appreciate that."

Steven D. Hollon, PhD, professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University, says it's a myth that depressed people aren't effective at work. "If you look at some of the greatest leaders, you might think depression ought to be a prerequisite: Lincoln, Churchill—we've done OK with people who have dealt with mental illness."

Sometimes it's a matter of finding the right fit. Laurel Lemke, 54, stuck it out at a tough job and was glad she did. She has bipolar disorder, which caused some friction with her grouchy boss, who eventually retired. Then, Lemke says, "They brought in somebody else who has bipolar too, and I became the lead worker in the office."