Mental Health Disability Rights in The Workplace: A Guide For Employees

Jessica White

Written by Jessica White

Community Mental Health Worker & Case Manager

Updated & Fact Checked: 02.28.2024
Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

Struggling with your mental health can make it difficult to function on a daily basis and handle every-day activities, including employment. Mental health disorders can affect one’s ability to work as expected in a variety of ways, and these struggles are often misunderstood. However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t any options. This article is intended to help guide you through your rights and provide education on the challenges that may arise from struggling with mental health at work. It’s important to remember that you aren’t alone in these struggles. In fact, more than one in five adults in the United States live with a mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Despite how common it is, there isn’t necessarily enough education in each state on how to accommodate and handle mental health. While there are laws in place to help navigate this complex issue, many people aren’t aware of what is available to help. 

Diverse workplaces are important, which includes the employment of people with a variety of abilities. This can mean that companies are responsible for working with their employees to help them complete tasks in a way that is most functional for them. Unfortunately, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s easy getting the accommodations you may need. That being said, even if a workplace is not aware of an employee’s mental health disability, providing accommodations and education is helpful to the bottom line. For example the Handbook of Occupational Health and Wellness states that it is more expensive to not address mental health in the workplace. This also includes providing training to employees to help prevent mental disorders in the first place. 

Facts About Mental Health Disabilities

  • Mental health struggles often go along with other kinds of disabilities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 17.4 million adults who have a disability also experience “frequent mental distress”. Additionally, one in four adults have a disability in the US. 
  • According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), one in 20 Americans live with a serious mental illness. This includes conditions such as major depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder. 
  • Anxiety disorder is one of the most common mental health conditions in the US  at 18%. 9.5% of US adults struggle with depression, 4% struggle with ADHD, 2.6% with bipolar disorder, and 1% with schizophrenia.
    • This is why it is so important for employers to be educated on how to provide support to their employees, even if they don’t specifically disclose a disability.  
  • Individuals with mental health conditions CAN heal, work stressful and demanding jobs, and work effectively, using accommodations if needed. 

This article goes over a variety of topics related to mental health and disability, including:

  • The challenges of having a mental health disability at work
  • Deciding if you should discose any mental health conditions at work 
  • Information on the ADA and the protections it provides 
  • Reasonable accommodations you can request at work if you need them for your mental health disability and how to request said accommodations
  • Information on how your mental health care provider can help you navigate getting an accommodation
  • Mental health disability resources 

Challenges of Mental Health Disabilities in the Workplace 

Each person who has a mental health disability will have a unique life experience. Some might be considered disabled in certain scenarios, such as work, due to the way their symptoms present, while others with the same condition might not be affected in that same way. Disabilities in the workplace can create challenges that then lead to further difficulties, including discrimination and unemployment, even despite certain laws. 

The ADA defines a person with a disability as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment”. Many people can fall under this definition. The establishment of this criteria is helpful, because it means that many people are able to ask for help when they previously would have been invisible.

The work is not done, however, as disabilities, especially invisible ones like mental illness, may have a stigma surrounding them that can create hardship when asking for accommodations, despite existing laws that prevent discrimination. Stigma is defined as “a set of negative and unfair beliefs that society or a group of people have about something”. Experiencing a stigma against you can include assumptions that you are not good at your job, issues with coworkers or employers who hold a negative perception and let it affect their professional interactions with you, and other forms of discrimination. 

If you experience discrimination due to a mental health condition, it can be helpful to document anything you can in regards to your negative experiences. This might include emails, your personal account of instances, voicemails, testimonies from coworkers who have observed you being discriminated against, and anything else you can gather. This documentation might be helpful if you experience retaliation, which a company and/or supervisor may do if you ask for an accommodation, despite ADA laws against this. Forms of retaliation may include, but are not limited to:

  • A reduction in pay. 
  • Being reassigned to a different job or department. 
  • Being demoted in your position. 
  • Being unfairly disciplined. 
  • Being fired. 

What complicates this issue is that employers can often take disciplinary action against you if there is a history of poor performance. However, poor performance in certain ways may be caused by some mental health symptoms. This is another reason why documentation may be helpful and important. Poor performance caused by mental health can also be a reason why someone might choose to disclose their condition, as someone with the proper accommodations may be able to fulfill the job expectations as expected. Additionally, stigma can cause an employer to have certain biases against the employee, which can lead to an environment where the employee fears being fired or they are unfairly criticized for their work. However, the ADA protects employees with mental health disabilities from being fired or having other adverse action taken against them if they are experiencing biases and stereotypes against them. 

None of the struggles described above mean that people with mental health disabilities will automatically “fail” at career endeavors, nor does it mean that they are unemployable. In fact, many people who struggle in one area may thrive in another with their own unique skills. However, having self-awareness about your struggles may help you feel more content at work, as accommodations can make all the difference. 

Should I Disclose My Mental Health Condition at Work? 

Ultimately, choosing whether or not to disclose your mental health at work is up to you, but there are factors to consider. Despite certain laws, considering the risks involved can be a part of your decision. As mentioned in the previous section, one might consider disclosing their mental health condition if it may cause poor performance that might lead to dismissal from the job position if accommodations are not received.  Certain accommodations can help a disabled employee meet certain goals, such as turning in accurate work or completing work on a requested timetable. 

While disclosure is optional, it may be important to disclose a mental health condition and request accommodations before any symptoms might affect the quality of one’s work. An employer can potentially enforce the quality and productivity of their employees to the detriment of the disabled person, if said disability is not disclosed in a timely manner. Meanwhile, the earlier you disclose, the more obligation the employer has to help provide the accommodation. Taking this initiative helps ensure that ADA protections can help in the case of any backlash, and puts the responsibility on the employer as soon as possible. 

Reasons to Disclose:

  • By disclosing your mental health conditions, you are helping normalize conversations about these conditions. This can help future or current employees who need the same assistance. 
  • Similar to the above, by talking about your mental health, you are reducing stigma. 
  • Disclosure may help improve relationships with your colleagues and supervisor by changing the attitude around your struggle, especially if your performance or productivity has been affected. 
  • By opening this discussion up with your supervisor, you can speak further about what other needs you may have that they can help with. 
  • With disclosure, you will be protecting your rights if future issues of discrimination arise. 

Reasons to Not Disclose:

  • You may not need accommodations if your mental health doesn’t affect your ability to do your job. 
  • It’s possible that stigma may follow you with disclosure depending on the biases of your colleagues, despite laws against this. 
  • SImilar to the above, some employers may not be willing to follow the law to provide accommodations. If this is the case, the people you work with might also start rumors and gossip about you and your work habits. 

Disclosure is a very personal choice. However, if you feel like accommodations might be helpful to you to prevent your symptoms from affecting your work, reporting your disability may be helpful sooner rather than later. Finally, Heads Up has more information on if you should tell your employer about your mental health disability. 

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Mental Health Protection at Work 

The ADA is an important civil rights law that was established in the year 1990. The purpose of this law is to prohibit  discrimination “on the basis of disability in a variety of areas, including employment, state and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunication”, per the ADA website. This might mean that facilities are required to have a certain number of handrails on a walkway, ramps that lead from and to the inside of a building, restrooms with a stall meant for individuals with mobility devices, and much more. The ADA also protects employees at work, by mandating that employers must make reasonable accommodations for their employees and not allow someone’s disability be the only factor that keeps them from getting a job. This counts for people who struggle with mental health conditions so that they can be more successful at navigating work requirements. 

ADA rights in the workplace in regards to psychiatric disabilities, according to the ADA National Network include:

  • The right to privacy. An employee can choose whether or not to reveal their condition to their employer. This can change if the employee wants to ask their employer for accommodations. Even so, this should be kept private only among the supervisor, employee, and possibly human resources or anyone else who is on a “need to know” basis. 
  • The right to an accommodation. An employee can request accommodations that will help them with their disability, as long as it doesn’t cause an undue hardship to the employer. 

The ADA National Network reports that the legal protections for disclosing a mental health condition include:

  • The choice to disclose.There are some exceptions to this, such as if an employee wishes to request an accommodation. If this happens, the employer may request the employee to provide medical documentation of the disability. 
  • If a person with a psychiatric condition receives a job offer, you might be required to take a medical exam. This medical exam might conclude with diagnosing a mental health condition. If this happens, the job offer can’t be withdrawn, unless the employee will be unable to perform the job duties without a reasonable accommodation. Another exception is if the disability will pose a safety issue. 
  • Federal contractors are responsible for inviting their employees to optionally disclose a disability, which is only used for internal purposes and is meant to be kept confidential. 

Reasonable Workplace Accommodations for Mental Health Conditions

It can be complicated to figure out what is and isn’t considered a reasonable accommodation, and this may depend on the individual organization and their ability to fulfill the request. However, examples of accommodations can include, but are not limited to:

  • Allowing an employee to modify their work schedule so they can attend appointments that are related to the disability. 
  • Being provided with interpreters or other personal assistance.
  • Adaptive equipment like certain desk and computer setups or accessible technology. 
  • Being provided with reserved parking and other improved workplace accessibility 
  • Important information being provided through various means such as written, visual, photos, videos, or verbal communication. 
  • Working from home part-time or full-time. 
  • Relocating the work area to another part of the office. 

If you feel as though an accommodation would be helpful to you, review the below section for how to request them. 

How to Request Workplace Accommodations for a Mental Health Disability

Requesting an accommodation may vary slightly by state, but there are a few general rules to follow to get started. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) provides guidelines on how to request accommodations, including the following steps:

  • Ask to speak with the human resources department to find out if the company has a process already in place. 
  • Think about and narrow down what accommodations you need. Create a letter with the requests in writing and save a copy for your own records. 
  • Ask your treatment provider for documentation on your mental health condition with additional information that you need accommodations. 
  • Be prepared to negotiate with your employer over the options they are willing to offer. 

Requesting an accommodation might feel overwhelming, but it can improve so many parts of your life by relieving stress and helping you struggle less at work. It’s important to remember that it’s your right to receive an accommodation, and there are laws to protect you. 

Can My Mental Health Provider Help With Receiving Accomodations? 

A mental health provider may include a therapist, counselor, psychologist, social worker, psychiatrist, and possibly even a general practitioner. Professionals in these roles may play a very important part in helping an employee receive their accommodations or other disability needs. A mental health provider can help by providing documentation about your disability and including that you need an accommodation, according to NAMI California. They can also provide emotional support during the journey, as it may be an emotional experience. Some providers may be particularly educated on the subject as well to provide specific guidance. 

The Role of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), located in Washington, DC, states that they are “responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or employee because of the person’s race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, or genetic information”. Organizations that are responsible for following these laws are ones with at least 15-20 employees. Additionally, the EEOC works to investigate when an employer is charged with discrimination by exploring the evidence in the case as well as the larger picture, such as how the lawsuit could affect the work of the EEOC itself. The EEOC also tries to prevent discrimination through other efforts, including outreach, education, and assistance programs. This includes working with federal agencies to promote equal employment. . 

Mental Health Disability Resources

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA National Network)

The ADA National Network is the website of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Visitors to this website will receive information, including resources, training, and guidance for how to use the ADA in various situations to ensure that individuals with disabilities are fully informed on their rights and how to implement them. This organization strives to serve “all sectors of society” per their website, which includes government at all levvels, employers and their employees, and other organizations, as well as individuals with disabilities. If you are looking for more information on disability rights, the website provides the contact information for ADA specialists across the ten ADA Centers. These ADA specialists can be contacted through emails, in-person consultations, and calls. They also can answer questions about the Rehabilitation Act, Fair Housing Act, and Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. 

National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) 

NAMI, esablished in 1979,  is an organization that is dedicated towards helping Americans with mental illness build better lives. They do this by providing education, referrals, advocacy, and listening to the community. Their advocacy involves working shaping public policy that benefits individuals and families with mental illness as well as organizations who provide the services. They also provide the NAMI HelpLine to support those who call in a variety of ways. Additionally, they provide support groups through their state organizations. The website provides numerous resources for anyone who needs them. 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

The CDC’s website contains educational resources for coping with mental health disabilities and information on a number of other topics related to mental health, physical health, and wellness. This can be a beneficial website for many, since mental and physical health often go together so closely. The CDC promotes wellness in regards to mental health by funding the National Centers on Disability. People who want to learn about disability inclusion, healthy living with a disability, and data and statistics on the topic should visit the CDC website for more information. Resource topics on the CDC website include:

  • Disability and Health Promotion
  • Healty Living
  • Coping with Stress

US Equal Employment Opportunity Commision (EEOC) 

The EEOC is responsible for enforcing anti-discrimination laws that are intended to prevent discromination against employees and job applicants because of various factors such as their race, sex, age, disability status, and more, which can include people who have disabilities from mental health issues. These laws apply to almost all employers with at least 15 employees, as well as labor unions and employment agencies. The EEOC website contains contact information for questions on employment discrimination, the nearest EEOC office to one’s location, and a Frequently Asked Questions page. The FAQ answers questions that someone might have about any discrimination cases they may have. There is also a news page with updates on various laws and lawsuits going on. In general, it is an excellent resource for those who need information on disability rights. 


Struggling with mental health can have many different effects on your life, some good, and some bad, and this can follow you to work. If you struggle with certain conditions, this doesn’t inherently mean that you will struggle at your job. However, if you do, there are laws and resources out there. Disclosing your condition might be helpful for being able to do your job, as long as it is reasonable to your employer. It is your choice overall whether or not to tell your employer about your mental illness, but if you feel that it would help you, it’s important to do it sooner rather than later. You are valid no matter what you struggle with, and you deserve help if you need it.