“The bravest thing I ever did was continuing my life when I wanted to die.”• Juliette Lewis
The American actress’s above admission aptly highlights the tussle she faced like several other people suffering from mental disorders. People with a mental health condition are often wary of disclosing their condition to the employers fearing discrimination and stereotyping. While there are laws in place for preventing biases from creeping in with regard to race, gender and disabilities, there is an implicit bias existing to this day in respect to the people with a mental health condition.
Apart from this, many employers go out of their way to ensure a suitable working environment for the people with a disability, particularly physical disabilities. However, they have not succeeded much in creating similar opportunities for mental patients. The need of the hour is to support the mentally ill join the workforce and other aspects of life.
It has been widely accepted that a steady employment is a kind of treatment in the case of people with a range of mental illnesses. Since mental patients often exhibit a range of talents and abilities, it is essential to make adequate investment in the vocational strategies particularly targeting them. This will also be in the line of the defined rights of the mentally ill patients.
With the growth in awareness about mental illnesses, many offices nowadays staff full-time counselors and offer online chat services to address common mental health related problems, such as stress, anxiety and depression, all the while maintaining the privacy of the employee. Some of the legal rights safeguarding the rights of the people with mental illnesses have been discussed in this article.
Legal rights to protect from discrimination
Whether it is with regard to the right of being treated with respect and dignity or the right to receive remuneration and services as per one’s entitlement, there are laws to ensure that any employee with a mental illness is not discriminated on any of these levels because of their condition.
- Workplace privacy rights: This set of rights disbars an employer from enquiring about a person’s medical condition, including mental health. One is entitled to reveal his or her condition only when he or she wants to access the benefits as defined by the law.
- Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): Though certain antisocial tendencies, such as kleptomania, pedophilia, exhibitionism, voyeurism, etc., have been excluded from the ambit of this law, most mental health conditions, such as major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and schizophrenia, have been included. The Act was passed in 1990 and has injunctions against any kind of discrimination based on physical and mental disability in workplace, government services, etc.
- Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA): As per this Act, certain employees can take up to 12 workweeks of unpaid but job-protected leave during a 12-month period for a host of conditions, including for taking care of a child or spouse with a serious health condition that can either be a physical or mental illness.
- Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA): This Act provides tooth to the government-based bodies, jails, prisons, state- or locally-run mental health facilities or developmental disability and mental retardation facilities, etc. to arrest problems related to abuse, neglect, and rehabilitation.
On the ground of the existing bias, implicit or explicit, and stereotypes with regard to mental health conditions, an employer cannot decide whether a person can perform a task as per the requirement. Moreover, the employer on the basis of the laws mentioned above cannot claim that the employee concerned is a safety risk to others.
It is necessary for the employer to provide substantial evidence for any kind of changes in the work and role of the employee suffering from mental illness. The evidence should be led by reason and objective in nature and not be hearsay. An employee with a mental health condition is well within his or her rights when he or she refuses to divulge information about his or her condition.
There are few instances when he or she would be required to provide information about his or her mental condition:
- The grant of a reasonable accommodation to enable a person with mental illness to do his or her job in the best possible manner, including work from home possibilities.
- Mandatory for all employees to share information related to mental health.
- Reliable evidence to corroborate that the employee concerned poses a security risk because of his or her condition.
For most conditions that are “substantially limiting,” or wherein a person is incapacitated because of his or her disorder from fulfilling his or her work to his or her optimum capacity, a reasonable accommodation can be sought. Most mental health conditions, such as major depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and OCD, come under the category of “substantially limiting.” Therefore, depending on the nature of employment, one could either work from home or seek flexible work environment and timings.
Dealing with mental illness
With proper medication, counseling and therapy, it is possible to keep at bay some of the far-reaching and life-disruptive symptoms of a mental health condition that could interfere with the rigors of employment.