Are Mental Health Disorders Disabilities? A Q&A
| Read Time: 4 minutes | Disability Discrimination

One in five adults in the United States experiences mental illness each year. 5.2% of adults report having “serious” mental illness that “substantially interfered with or limited one or more major life activities.” This means that 50+ million people per year report experiencing mental illness.

Since mental health issues are so common, it is not surprising that we often receive questions about employees’ right to accommodations for mental disorders. If you are struggling at work, arming yourself with information about your rights can help you get accommodations and find space to recover and obtain treatment.

What are Examples of Mental Disorders?

Mental health disorders include:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depression, bipolar disorder, and other mood disorders
  • Attention deficit disorder and its variations (ADD, ADHD, etc.)
  • Eating disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Psychotic disorders, including schizophrenia

These are just examples. Nearly all mental health conditions that are diagnosed by medical professionals can qualify as disabilities under the law if they are serious enough to impact your life, as described below.

Do Mental Health Disorders Count as Disabilities Under the ADA?

The ADA defines disabilities as physical or mental conditions that “substantially limit” a major life activity. “Major life activities” include things like the ability to move, work, sleep, or engage in meaningful relationships. Under this broad standard, many mental health disorders qualify as disabilities. For example, depression can interfere with your ability to sleep or focus at work, among other things. If you need accommodations, your depression probably counts as a disability under the law.

Moreover, it is important to understand that you are protected from discrimination based on perceived disabilities. This means that if your employer believes you suffer from a personality disorder because you previously were diagnosed (but no longer carry that diagnosis), they cannot discriminate on that basis, even if you are not actually disabled at the time of the discrimination. This is important because of the ongoing stigma surrounding mental health disorders. Discrimination based on this stigma is illegal.

Your Right to Reasonable Accommodations for Mental Health Disorders

Most employees are entitled to reasonable accommodations for mental health disorders that qualify as disabilities. According to the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), helpful workplace accommodations can include:

  • Flexible work environments (flexible scheduling, work from home, flexible start time)
  • Leaves of absence for treatment and recovery
  • Job restructuring
  • Support animals
  • Modified attendance policies (e.g., no “points” on attendance policies for a period of recovery)

These are just examples. If you are struggling with diagnosed mental health issues, you should speak with your medical provider about the accommodations that will allow you to keep your job and continue participating in the workforce.

Can I Take Leave for Mental Health Disorders?

Probably. If you have worked in California for 1 year and 1,250 hours at an employer with 5+ employees, you are eligible to take 12 weeks of CFRA leave for serious medical conditions, including mental health disorders. Under the FMLA, you are eligible for 12 weeks of unpaid leave if you have worked for 1 year and 1,250 hours for an employer with 50+ employees.

If you are not eligible for CFRA/FMLA leave or your CFRA/FMLA leave is over, you probably are entitled to additional leave if it is not an “undue hardship” to your employer.

Whether leave would pose “undue hardship” is evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The EEOC has issued guidance on factors to consider in whether a leave poses an undue hardship, including:

  • The length of leave requested;
  • The frequency of leave (if the requested leave is intermittent);
  • The impact on co-workers;
  • The impact on ability to serve customers/clients in a timely manner;
  • The size of the employer.

In general, it is less of a burden if you request a shorter leave, rather than a longer one. This is less disruptive to the employer and co-workers. Similarly, a larger employer should be able to accommodate additional leave more easily than a smaller employer. These are just generalizations, however, and are no substitute for advice about your specific situation.

You can learn more about what happens when you run out of FMLA/CFRA leave here.

Do I Have to Disclose My Mental Health Diagnosis to My Employer?

In California, the answer is no. California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) prevents employers from asking questions about the employee’s diagnosis. Your medical provider can write a note stating that you suffer from a serious health condition that interferes with your ability to do your job. They do not need to say that you have a mental health issue. Your medical provider should also specify accommodations that will allow you to continue to work or keep your job.

Under federal law, your employer may ask about your diagnosis under certain circumstances, including if you are requesting FMLA leave. They are required to keep this information confidential and may only discuss it with managers and supervisors.

Can I Take Paid Short-Term Disability Leave for Mental Health Issues?

Maybe, if you live in a state with short-term disability insurance or work for an employer who offers private insurance. In California, almost all employees are eligible for short-term disability through the EDD. You can tell you are eligible by looking at your paystub and seeing if there is an “SDI” or “Short-term disability” deduction.

Your medical provider is responsible for certifying you for short-term disability with the State EDD or a private insurance plan. The medical provider will determine the duration of the leave.

Can I Be Retaliated Against for Requesting Accommodations for Mental Health Issues?

No. You cannot be retaliated against because you were requested accommodations for a mental health issue. This is true even if your request for accommodations is denied.

Can I Be Fired for Having Mental Health Issues?

No. You cannot be fired because you were diagnosed with mental health disorders or requested reasonable accommodations. While it is possible that your employer could fire you because you no longer can perform the position, they first should attempt to accommodate you so you can continue to work.

Our Cases on Behalf of Workers with Mental Health Issues

We have represented dozens of clients suffering from mental health disorders who were denied accommodations, retaliated against, or terminated for their mental health conditions. We understand that mental health disorders are real medical issues that can impact your ability to do your job. Fortunately, the law gives you the right to accommodations and protects you from discrimination.

We provide free, confidential consultations to California workers. You should contact us as soon as possible to make sure your claim is still within the time limits set by law. Contact us today through our website or give us a call at (213) 465-4802 to schedule a free consultation.

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Julian Burns King graduated with honors from Harvard Law School and founded King & Siegel in 2018. As head of the Firm’s discrimination and harassment practice areas, she champions the rights of working parents and victims of workplace discrimination and harassment. She has been recognized as a “Rising Star” by Super Lawyers annually since 2018 and has recovered tens of millions of dollars on behalf of her clients.

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