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Job Rights for the Mentally Ill

Employers beware. All illnesses must be treated equally.

Where to Find Help

If you think you may have symptoms of a mental illness, talk to your doctor. Many hospitals and clinics offer screenings for mental illness free of charge. To find a clinic nearby, call 1-800-573-4433 or visit www.depression-screening.org.

Employees should also realize that their physician can help, not only with treatment, but by contacting an employer if necessary. But Owens cautions that many doctors still fail to recognize mental illness, especially depression, and often don't understand its consequences in the workplace.

Mentally ill employees in most large companies can draw support from employment assistance programs. Counselors for these programs are usually better equipped than human resources personnel to provide confidential information and local contacts for mental illness, says Kelly Collins, executive director of Advocate Employee Assistance Program, Inc., in Gaithersburg, Md.

"People need to know that depression is very treatable; it needn't cost a lot of money or take a lot of time," she says. "Unfortunately, the workplace is not the best place to seek support in terms of your colleagues because they may not be familiar with what you're going through and they may feel uncomfortable about it. You're more likely to get support through depression support groups, or through your church or synagogue."

Educating employers as well as employees is the best plan for reducing stigma in the workplace, says Owens. And she adds that the stigma of mental illness is already decreasing, much as the stigma of cancer has faded. "Now people are treated for cancer and go back to work, and in general they're treated no differently."

As for Laura Baxter, new medication has helped stave off the symptoms of her illness. Now she is working in a third position where she does not believe her supervisor knows about her previous struggles with depression, and she has no plans to tell him. "A few friends at work know about it, and I think it is important for people to talk about it," she says. "But I'm still cautious."

Christine Cosgrove is a freelance writer who specializes in health and medical issues. She has worked as a reporter for UPI in New York and as a senior editor at Parenting Magazine.

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Reviewed on May 27, 2002

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