Psychiatric and Mental Impairment

Approximately 58 million Americans experience a mental impairment each year. Psychiatric and mental impairments are broad in range, and range from mild depression to chronic disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Mental impairment is defined under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as “any mental or psychological disorder, such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities.” Employment discrimination against individuals with psychiatric and mental impairment occurs when the impairment substantially limits one or more major life activities of the individual, and an employer who knows of this impairment takes adverse employment action.

There are many myths and stigmas regarding the mentally ill that frustrate their desire to have meaningful, rewarding careers. First, people often equate mental illness with mental retardation, and do not understand that intellectual functioning varies with mental illness, just as it varies in individuals without mental illness. Further, supervisors and employers frequently believe that recovery from mental illness is impossible, and are not aware that many mental illnesses can be treated successfully with continued therapy and medication. There is a pervasive societal belief that individuals suffering from mental illness, or who are recovering from mental illness are weak. For employers this assumed weakness translates to the perception that the mentally ill and those who previously suffered from mental illness are second rate employees. People with psychotic disorders are commonly perceived as incapable of handling stress on the job. Employers do not appreciate that reactions to stress among individuals with psychotic disorders are similar to those without psychotic disorders in that it varies from person to person. Lastly, society in general, including employers, perceives individuals who suffer from mental illness, or who have previously suffered from mental illness as being potentially violent, unpredictable, and dangerous. This is actually unfounded, even though this stereotype is often perpetuated in the media, and employers should recognize that the presence of a psychotic disorder or mental illness does not function as an indicator for such behavior.

The ADA requires that an individual, regardless of mental impairment, must still be able to complete the basic requirements of a job. Often individuals with mental illness are more than capable of completing the basic requirements for a job, and will have the same skills and qualifications as their peers, but will still be passed over for a job, or experience employment discrimination based on the previously discussed prejudices. To fight this discrimination, the ADA has implemented restrictions in the hiring process and in employer conduct. First, employers are not permitted to ask an applicant about medical conditions, treatments, or use of medication. Once hired, if an employee needs a reasonable accommodation to properly complete the essential functions of the position because of a mental impairment, an employer is required to provide these accommodations. For individuals suffering from mental illness, or who have previously suffered from mental illness, reasonable accommodations may be as simple as a flexible work schedule, or an understanding supervisor who provides feedback and guidance on the job. The ADA also prohibits discriminatory employer conduct, such as demotions, dismissal, or failure to promote based on an employee’s mental illness.

Persons with psychiatric and mental Impairment that substantially limit a major life activity are considered disabled under the ADA and are therefore entitled to protection against discrimination. If you live in the metro New York area, including Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, the Bronx, and Manhattan, or on Long Island, in either Nassau or Suffolk County, and have experienced discrimination in the workplace because of your psychiatric or mental impairment, you should contact a New York disability attorney.

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