Reducing Stigma Surrounding Mental Health Disabilities in the Workplace

May 6th 2022 | Camille Golowski

Edited by Raymond Perez

Signed into law in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush and still universally recognized today, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became the legal framework to protect and increase the rights of workers with disabilities. This provisional US law strictly forbids any type of discrimination against individuals who have, who have had, or who are perceived as having a physical or mental disability that substantially limits their daily life activities, as well as substance users in the workplace (active alcoholics or recovering drug users). As such, employees are protected in all aspects of the workplace environment such as hiring, firing, pay, promotion, and even retaliation in exercising their rights under the ADA. 

Certainly, immense strides have been made in the past 30 years to aid individuals living with disabilities as they navigate increased hardships in employment such as discrimination in the hiring process, heightened job stress and balance, as well as difficulties in requesting and receiving accommodations. Yet, there still remains a gray area concerning mental health awareness, which prevents individuals from exercising their rights under the ADA. Firstly, the distinction between mental disorder and psychiatric disability is a critical element to consider. The term “psychiatric disability” is typically used in a legal context to refer to impairments covered under the ADA, which differs from the medical context in which mental disorder is used to encompass an overarching range of mental and emotional health conditions. While the term psychiatric disability is relatively broad in covering mental impairments that substantially limit one or more major life activities, because the DSM-5 is not used as an evaluative tool to protect individuals under the ADA as it is in psychological and medical settings, areas of mental impairment may exist under one but not the other. Thus, an individual seeking to be protected under the ADA may be threatened by this distinction. 

More critical is the stigma that exists in workplaces and beyond involving receiving accommodations for mental health circumstances. Largely due to existing societal discomfort in discussing mental health, individuals can certainly be reluctant to disclose information to their employers or employees about their mental difficulties. Although these individuals are protected under the ADA, pressure can emerge in fear of being stereotyped in the workplace. Similarly, the inability of an employer to properly understand and accommodate for person-specific needs for mental health challenges that may be novel to that employer or workplace remains a concern for individuals. Under the ADA, an employer cannot require an individual to disclose their disability during applications or take a psychological evaluation that is medical in nature. However, if this information is disclosed voluntarily in choosing to request an accommodation, the employer has the right to ask for information or documentation of the medical circumstance. Thus, because accommodations are oftentimes necessary for individuals with disabilities to perform their jobs to the best of their ability, it is almost inevitable that this information must be disclosed. The imminent fear of differential treatment in the social context of the workplace environment poses a huge concern for many covered by the ADA.

 One prime example of the many misconceptions that exist in the workplace surrounding individuals with disabilities is their perceived propensity to commit violence.  Many employers and employees in the workplace share concerns of impulsive conflict, disruption or even physical outbursts of those working with mental disabilities. However, in reality, 96% of violent acts are committed by individuals who do not have mental illnesses. In fact, the truth is that “…adults with mental illness are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of community violence.”. Feeding into these misconceptions can propel the extent to which individuals feel they will be stereotyped for a disability in the workplace. 

A key resource that has become widely available to employees in the times of the ADA is Employee Assistance Programs. An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a work-based intervention program designed to identify and assist employees in resolving personal problems (e.g., marital, financial or emotional problems; family issues; substance/alcohol abuse) that may be adversely affecting the employee’s performance. Empowering individuals with knowledge of resources to help themselves and other employees can be a preventative action to ensure that a disability will not become a hindrance in the workplace for the individual themselves, their employers, or their coworkers. The EAP significantly strengthens internal communication channels within an organization, allowing for strides to be made in decreasing social stigmatization.  

While the Americans with Disabilities Act has made admirable strides to legally protect individuals with disabilities, the true change must come from the social context of the workplace for individuals to truly feel secure in exercising their rights under the ADA. So what can we as law-abiding and righteous citizens do to aid those experiencing mental impairment in the workplace? The answer lies in education. Not only educating managers about how to address situations in which an employee may be experiencing mental health challenges, but also educating other employees to raise awareness about the true context of mental health, can improve the workplace environment and increase the likelihood of those with disabilities to seek resource treatment. Together, we must aim to create a supportive work environment that increases knowledge, dispels myths, reduces shame and stigma, and decreases discrimination. In this way, we will allow for individuals protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act to feel comfortable utilizing their legal freedom and fulfilling their potential in the workplace.

Golowski is a senior at Johns Hopkins University pursuing a Pre-Law path, majoring in Psychology and French & minoring in Entrepreneurship and Management.


[1] Lisa Guerin, J.D. “Disability Discrimination in the Workplace: An Overview of the Ada.” Www.nolo.com, Nolo, 1 May 2013, https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/disability-discrimination-workplace-overview-of-30123.html#:~:text=The%20Americans%20with%20Disabilities%20Act%20(ADA)%20prohibits%20employers%20from%20discriminating,their%20rights%20under%20the%20law.

[2] “What Are Psychiatric Disabilities?” What Are Psychiatric Disabilities? | National Rehabilitation Information Center, https://naric.com/?q=en%2FFAQ%2Fwhat-are-psychiatric-disabilities#:~:text=Psychiatric%20disability%20is%20defined%20by,Equal%20Employment%20Opportunity%20Commission%20(EEOC).

[3] “The Myth of Violence and Mental Illness.” CMHA Durham, 29 Apr. 2016, https://cmhadurham.ca/finding-help/the-myth-of-violence-and-mental-illness/.

[4] “Community violence perpetration and victimization by people.”  American Journal of Public Health. Dec 2014.

[5] “The Voice of All Things Work.” SHRM, 12 Apr. 2021, https://dc00.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/tools-and-samples/hr-qa/pages/whatisaneap.aspx.

Photo Credit: NAMI

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