If Mental Illness Makes It Harder For You to Do Your Job, There Are Laws in Place to Help

One in five Americans experiences mental illness each year, and for many, it's a lifelong struggle. Conditions like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder can make work challenging, but many employees are hesitant to ask for help navigating the workplace because of the stigma surrounding mental illness and out of fear that they'll face consequences. Fortunately, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) offers protections for both physical disabilities and mental illness. Here's what you need to know.

What Rights Do You Have Under the ADA?

The legislation prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life. In the workplace, this means that your mental illness cannot be factored into decisions about hiring, firing, salary, and promotions. Additionally, "if an employer knows that an employee has a disability and needs a reasonable accommodation to perform the essential functions of his or her job, the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation," Micah Longo, an employment lawyer at The Longo Firm in Florida, told POPSUGAR.

A reasonable accommodation is anything that would help you better perform the tasks required for your job, without causing an "undue hardship" to the company. What does that mean, exactly? Any accommodation that would be very expensive or significantly change the way the business is run could be considered unreasonable — but, as Longo explained, many other requests can be honored. For example, if you're struggling to stay focused in the workplace, you might ask to shift your schedule so you can work remotely or take more frequent breaks, or request to switch desks to a quieter spot in the office.

Some requests are even simpler to fulfill. For example, Longo said that asking your boss to put instructions in an email, rather than giving them verbally, could be considered a request for a reasonable accommodation.

When Should You Tell an Employer About a Mental Illness?

Matthew W. Burr, human resources consultant at Burr Consulting, LLC, told POPSUGAR that if your condition is going to have an effect on your position, it's better to disclose sooner rather than later. If you're offered a job and you believe you'll need accommodations, he recommends disclosing before going any further. As long as the accommodations don't create an undue burden, the ADA will protect you from discrimination — and disclosing as soon as possible will allow a potential employer to review your requests and compare them to the essential functions of the job. "In a current position, I encourage people to disclose so we can collaborate on options," Burr said. The accommodations that can be made will vary depending on your position and the company.

Asking that instructions be sent by email is a fairly small request, but more substantial accommodations, like modified work hours or the option to work from home, may require some paperwork on your part. Burr said that some companies have specific accommodation forms, and you should be prepared to provide a doctor's note "with specific notes on what accommodation will look like versus the essential functions of the job." He explained that accommodations are made on a case-by-case basis and are typically determined by HR, your manager, your physician, and you as the employee.

There also may come a time when you need to take medical leave due to hospitalization or intensive outpatient treatment. In these cases, you'll need to request a leave of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Burr told POPSUGAR that the more information you disclose when applying for FMLA, the easier it will be for your company to process and approve your request. "Fill in the forms as required by your employer or the disability company. If you don't disclose the requested information, it can be delayed, denied, or a second and third opinion can be required," he explained. Burr also noted that your employer can ask for updated documentation throughout the leave.

Although the ADA does include protection for people with mental illness, it doesn't mean that any and all accommodations requested will be honored. In complicated situations, Burr said that attorneys may become involved in the decision-making process. But don't allow the fear of being turned down or criticized by your employer or coworkers keep you from disclosing. "Odds are that other people you've worked with have been in your same situation but you wouldn't know about it because nobody talks about it because they are just as afraid of the stigma," Emin Gharibian, PsyD, founder and director of Verdugo Psychological Associates, told POPSUGAR.

Dr. Gharibian also emphasized that you shouldn't feel guilty for taking steps like going on medical leave, if it will ultimately make you a better employee. "What will be more harmful is if you don't get treatment now and then you can no longer work or go to school because your symptoms are causing you too much impairment," Dr. Gharibian said.