The Americans with Disabilities Acts (ADA) protects employees from discrimination based on a disability—including mental illnesses like depression or anxiety. That means you cannot legally be fired just because you have one of the following:
- 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.
That’s great news—but there’s some fine print.
Telling your employer about your mental illness
In order for the ADA to protect you, you have to tell your employer that you have a mental illness. Many people feel uncomfortable doing this, and that’s okay. But your employer can’t be held accountable for what they don’t know.
If your mental illness is starting to interfere with your work, it may be a good idea to disclose it. For example, if you’re having trouble making it to work on time because your anxiety makes it hard to get enough sleep, your employer may be more understanding than if they think you’re just being lazy.
Most companies have a human resources (HR) representative that you can talk to, instead of just telling your boss. HR representatives often have backgrounds in psychology and tend to be more empathetic. You also don’t report to them for your daily job duties, which makes it less awkward. If you still need to talk to your boss about it, the HR representative can be with you to provide support while you do.
Telling your employer about your mental illness has another possible advantage: you can ask for “reasonable accommodations.” Maybe they can switch you to a later shift so it’s not so hard to get there on time. Or they may give you more flexibility with your work hours so that you can attend your doctor’s appointments. Little things like this can go a long way in making your job more manageable.
There are a few other catches you should be aware of:
- You still need to be able to complete the essential duties of the job. The ADA can’t protect you from things like being underqualified, or from anything that’s not directly related to your mental illness.
- Not all accommodations are “reasonable.” If you need too much help to complete your job duties, your employer can argue that the accommodations create an “undue hardship” for the company.
- Your employer can also let you go if your mental illness poses a direct threat to anyone’s safety.
- The ADA does not apply to companies with fewer than 15 employees.
- Your employer may ask for documentation of your mental illness. Our mental health screens are a great starting point, but they don’t count as a diagnosis. Only a qualified professional (usually a doctor or a therapist) can provide you with the documentation you need.
The ADA isn’t the only legal protection you have for mental health issues that affect your work. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) can also help you get time off or other accommodations.
I got fired. What do I do now?
If you’re reading this because you already got fired for your mental illness, you can pursue legal action against the company that fired you. Contact your local field office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for help.
- Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, Pub. L. No. 101-336, 104 Stat. 328 (1990). Retrieved from https://www.ada.gov/pubs/adastatute08.htm
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Depression, PTSD & Other Mental Health Conditions in the Workplace: Your Legal Rights. Retrieved from https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/mental_health.cfm
- Ohikuare, Judith. (2018, June 28). Is it illegal for a company to fire you for being depressed? Retrieved from https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2018/06/202151/how-to-tell-hr-about-depression-disability
- Schimelpfening, Nancy. (2019, August 12). What are your rights at work when you’re depressed? Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/the-ada-and-depression-know-your-rights-1065229