Becky Beach had been working for her employer for over a year when she decided to tell them about her bipolar disorder.
She had switched medication, and it wasn’t working. She needed a few days off, and she wanted to give her boss a heads up as to why she was taking the days.
Beach was fired a week later.
“There is a stigma on mental illnesses and not everyone understands them,” she said. “I tried to seek legal help but I had no recording of myself telling my boss about my condition. There wasn’t any proof, basically.”
Beach wasn’t trying to request any extra accommodations. She’d thought that being open and upfront could help save her job. It had the opposite effect, she said.
Beach said she’d never tell a future employer about her condition. And with stories like hers, it’s hard to know whether it’s a good idea for anyone.
The good news: if you live in the United States, you’ve technically got protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
This act, which protects Americans from discrimination based on disability, includes diagnosed mental disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and schizophrenia.
“However, the person must be able to show a history of such a disability,” said David Reischer, an attorney and CEO of Legaladvice.com. “The person will also need to be able to demonstrate the qualifications to perform the essential duties of the job, with or without reasonable accommodation.”
In other words, as long as you can show proof of your disability (i.e. a doctor’s note), and prove you can still do the job, you should not be fired because of your mental health. It’s illegal.
Unfortunately, it can still happen. For that reason, it’s probably a good idea to request any accommodation in written form.
That way, you’re both fully communicating to your employer while also documenting the request in case of future legal action.
“An employer may ask for more information or documentation of the condition and the way it affects the employee and such a request is not unlawful,” Reischer said. “The employer does not have to provide the precise accommodation you request, but it must… come up with an accommodation that will be effective.”
How open you want to be with your boss can also depend on office culture.
At the creative agency where he works, Andrew Clark felt comfortable opening up to his manager about his anxiety and history of depression.
That’s because his manager had previously mentioned his own mental health struggles during one-on-one meetings.
“I also wished to make him aware so I could continue seeing my therapist during the workday and in the event it ran over the time allocated for my lunch,” Clark said. “This experience has been very positive and freeing, but I know this is a unique situation. Other employers I have had were not as receptive or could not understand why I needed to ‘use company time’ to see a mental health professional.”
Since most office cultures aren’t so cut-and-dry, you might feel more comfortable talking about it with your human resources department before anyone else, especially if you’re requesting an accommodation like that.
You also might find it helpful to have a therapy appointment first.
“If you are unsure what your goal is, it can be helpful to speak with a mental health professional to help you define what you are wanting as well as refine ways for you to go about achieving it,” said licensed psychotherapist Laurie Sharp-Page.
“When you do disclose, be as upfront and honest as you feel comfortable being, and remember you get to choose what information you share.”
In many office environments, there’s still a stigma around mental health. You might not feel you work somewhere that would be welcoming of your mental health condition, regardless of what the law says.
According to an American Psychiatric Association poll, only about half of workers feel comfortable talking about mental health in the office. A full third worry they’ll be fired for seeking care.
For that reason, licensed social worker Victoria Woodruff tells clients to establish themselves in the workplace first and prove their value and talent first.
Then, slowly, you might feel more comfortable revealing the full picture.
“As far as how to survive in the meantime, it depends on what you’re dealing with. I have had anxiety and panic attacks myself,” Woodruff said. “Sometimes I find a quiet room like an office where I can lock the door or even a bathroom where I can calm myself down. Whatever your coping skills are, try incorporating them into the workplace.”
The good news: according to one study, the more employers know about mental health, the more accommodating they are of employees with mental health conditions.
In interviews with 27 Canadian employers, researchers found that most had previous experience dealing with mental illness, either personally, in their family or with other employees.
Most also agreed that it was important to accommodate mental health conditions, especially if they had the resources to do so.
“Always remember sharing is courageous,” Sharp-Page said. “And to do so encourages others to do the same.”
Gretchen has reported on the criminal justice system in rural Minnesota and covered everything from politics to millennial truck drivers for Wisconsin Public Radio. She is passionate about public media as a public service. She’s also into music and really good coffee. Follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.