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By: Nathaniel Z. Counts, J.D., Director of Policy, Mental Health America, and Aaron Konopasky, J.D., Ph.D., Senior Attorney-Advisor, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

At Mental Health America (MHA), we work to make sure people can get help Before Stage 4. When we think of cancer or heart disease, we don’t wait years to treat people. We start before Stage 4—we begin with prevention, identify symptoms, and develop a plan to treat and support the person. We need to do the same with mental health.

When you think of acting Before Stage 4, you might think of going to see a therapist as soon as you notice problems with your mental health. This is an important part of acting Before Stage 4. But acting early to change your day-to-day experiences at work can be another important part.  For example, if you are distracted because of anxiety or depression, a quiet workspace might help you be more productive and happy, and ultimately support your recovery.  Or, if your therapist only has appointments on weekday mornings, a shift in your schedule might help.

But isn’t it up to your boss whether you have a quiet workspace or a later schedule? 

Not always.  Sometimes, your employer is legally required to make changes that you need because of a mental health condition.  The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, says that many people with common mental health conditions like major depression, PTSD, and OCD have the right to get “reasonable accommodations” at work.  A reasonable accommodation can be almost anything – getting detailed instructions on assignments, a white noise machine/headphones, or even permission to work from home in some cases – as long as it doesn’t involve significant difficulty or expense, or paying for work that isn’t done.  Not everyone with a mental health condition has the right to get reasonable accommodations, but if the condition is affecting your work, there’s a good chance you qualify.

Too often we think of asking for a reasonable accommodation as a last resort, because it could be risky to tell the boss about a mental health condition.  But there is also a risk in not telling, if a reasonable accommodation would help you to avoid mistakes that get you in trouble or even fired.  And, in addition to requiring reasonable accommodations, the ADA also makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of disability. 

MHA hopes to bring our Before Stage 4 philosophy to the workplace. For additional resources, visit MHA’s workplace wellness site, use our Work Health Survey, and take our mental health screens. Each is designed to help you think about how you can act Before Stage 4.

For additional information on reasonable accommodations, you can also check out these publications by the Job Accommodation Network.  To learn more about the law of reasonable accommodation, and what to do if you think your employer isn’t following the law, you can visit the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) website.  The EEOC also has a Fact Sheet that you can give to your psychologist, psychiatrist, or other mental health provider that explains how they can help you get reasonable accommodations.

Note: This is intended to be an informal discussion, and should not be interpreted as an official position of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Jill (not verified)

Mon, 01/11/2016 - 11:35

My psychiatrist requested reasonable accomadations on my behalf to allow to for the continuation of my care, between seeing him once a week and my therapist two to three times a week. It was denied. I escalated these concerns to our affirmative action office, who met with the HR office. And once again, I was denied. Unfortunately, I was at stage 4,or rather returning from FMLA leave you treat stage 4. But was not able to complete my care because I could no longer part my bills and had to return to work prematurely. Right now I have you walk around in a comatose like started in order to make it through the day, to keep my anxiety under control.

Lisa Duran (not verified)

Mon, 01/11/2016 - 11:55

I recently started back at work after so many years being at home. I had experienced discrimination at work and they way they talk about people with mental illness is not good in telling your employer about having a diagnose. Eventually i has to quit my job due to bad anxiety attacks and thought i had a bad attitude. Now in looking for another job, but it's just hard to tell anyone about yourself without them looking at you like you're literally crazy.

Beth (not verified)

Mon, 01/11/2016 - 12:02

I was out of work for 2 1/2 weeks, doctor ordered, due to my bipolar disorder. I got no problem from my boss, who was very supportive and discreet about my illness. My problem was with my coworkers who were the cause of my absence from work, I was being singled out and bullied. They were Facebook friends who I didn't unfriend quickly enough. During my absence I was getting frequent messages asking why I was out of work and when I'd be back. Apparently one of the other girls, liked by all, was out with a hand injury. They wanted me to justify my absence and get back into work. When I did return to work, there was no "are you feeling better" like my coworker got. I was frozen out because I wouldn't share the details of my illness. I am so glad I didn't. I wound up quitting a few weeks later because I didn't want to wind up in the hospital again. The work environment involves so much more than just the employer-employee relationship. Co workers can either be supportive or a nightmare. I don't know if I will ever take a chance on a coworker and share my illness with them. I'm not sure I'll ever share with an employer unless I have no other choice. Offices can be gossip factories and the "crazy" person is always a fun one to gossip about.

Aaron Konopasky (not verified)

Tue, 01/12/2016 - 10:32

In reply to by Beth (not verified)

I'm so sorry to hear about this. For those in a similar position: If a coworker knows that you have a mental health condition and harasses you because of it, you can report it to the employer just like you can report sexual harassment. Both are against the law. If it doesn't stop, you can file a charge with the EEOC.