Can I be fired for my mental illness?

Catherine Reynolds, Mental Health America

The Americans with Disabilities Acts (ADA) protects employees with mental illness from discrimination.
That means if you meet one of three definitions, you cannot legally be fired just because of your mental health condition:

  • You have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
  • a history of such a disability, or if an employer believes that you have one, even if you don’t; or
  • a record of, or being regarded as, having such an impairment.

However, the ADA only protects employees whose employers know they have a disability. Employers are not allowed to ask specific questions about an applicant’s psychiatric history. While it is not required for a person to disclose their disability to a prospective or current employer, if it interferes with work performance or attendance you might consider telling them about it and request “reasonable accommodations” that will allow you to meet the requirements of your position. Once an employer is aware of the disability under the ADA, they are required to make reasonable accommodations to aid individuals with disabilities function adequately in the workplace. Examples of such accommodations include assigning a supportive supervisor, providing paid or unpaid leave during periods of hospitalization, and providing flexible work hours so an employee may attend doctor appointments. These accommodations may vary widely from one individual to another  

According to the ADA, these accommodations must not create an “undo hardship” for the employer or other employees. This means that the employer must show a significant adverse effect on the organization or other employees in order to meet the “undo hardship” standard. The tricky part is what might be an “undo hardship” to one employer or employee may not be to others. Consequently these decisions must be made on a case by case basis.

If your employer refuses to make what you consider a reasonable accommodation you have the right to appeal that decision by filing an ADA complaint with the Disability Rights Division of the Department of Justice. The ADA has been a powerful force in assuring that individuals with disabilities are treated fairly in the workplace.

Your boss still has the right to fire you for not doing the job you were hired to do. Once your employer is aware of your disability and has provided reasonable accommodation it is up to you to do your job faithfully.  Even if you were unaware or undiagnosed with a disability at the time you were hired, you should still notify your employer of any changes to stay protected.

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