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Health & Balance

Job Rights for the Mentally Ill

Employers beware. All illnesses must be treated equally.
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Armed with such advice and a letter from her psychiatrist, Baxter went to the company's human resources department and explained her situation. Without divulging Baxter's problem to her boss, a human resources manager was able to transfer her temporarily into a less taxing position.

Baxter handled her situation well, says Patricia Owens, a former associate commissioner of the Social Security disability program.

But the ADA rules are complex, and anyone who contemplates disclosing a disability should first become very familiar with its provisions. (Boston University's Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, at www.bu.edu/sarpsych/jobschool/, has information on how to disclose a psychiatric disability to an employer.)

Baxter had an advantage: she already knew she suffered from depression. Owens says many employees do not recognize the signs of mental illness in themselves. These people are in danger of losing their jobs because they don't understand why they're not functioning as well as they should.

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."

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