When we start a new job we’re not embarrassed to ask about the number of sick days or if there’s a gym membership reimbursement. But when it comes to our mental health, we either clam up or don’t know how to ask for the benefits we’re entitled to.

The fact is, forty-one million of us have dealt with some kind of mental illness just in the past year—that’s one out of five adults. And every single one is entitled to special protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). There’s a misconception that these protections are meant for people with severe or chronic conditions, but that’s not the case. Consider this list your mental health bill of rights.

Your Mental Health Disability Rights

  1. Protection Under the Law – It doesn’t matter how mild or severe your symptoms are, what kind of mental illness you’re dealing with, or whether your illness is chronic, you’re still eligible for protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). That means your employer can’t discriminate against you because of your illness.
  2. Special Requests – If you’re employed, you’re entitled to what’s called “reasonable accommodations” to do your job. This might include flexible work hours, working from home, and being assigned to a sympathetic boss. “You can also request to be in a workspace where there aren’t distractions, or whatever you might need,” says Debbie F. Plotnick, MSS, MLSP, who is the vice president for Mental Health and Systems Advocacy at the non-profit Mental Health America. The one catch: You have to disclose your condition.
  3. Extra Help – Chances are your employer has what’s called an employee assistance program (EAP). Ask about it. EAPs often provide assessments, short-term counseling, referrals, and various other services for employees who are struggling with personal or work issues.
  4. More Mental Health Days – Mental health conditions *may* qualify you for short- or long-term disability insurance from your employer. Short-term disability plans provide coverage for anywhere from a few months to up to two years; long-term policies may last as long as the disability does. If you apply for disability through an employer-sponsored plan, your doctor will likely need to provide documentation to your firm’s disability insurance provider. There is a chance, your claim may be denied if you have a pre-existing condition,” Plotnick explains. “Claims for mental health conditions will come under a lot of scrutiny. You may have to fight for claim approval.” If your claim is denied, you can appeal, Plotnick points out. Your state’s Protection & Advocacy (P&A) Systems and Client Assistance Programs (CAP) may be able to help; you can find your state’s agency via the National Disability Rights Network. Once you’re approved, there’s usually a waiting period before you can collect payment, which will likely be about 50-75 percent of your base pay.
  5. Compensation – If you’re dealing with extreme stress, or are exposed to trauma at work, like first responders often are, workers compensation may cover medical expenses and loss of wages Plotnick explains. The length of workmen’s compensation benefits varies, and an agency in your state—often a Department of Labor or Workers’ Compensation Commission—can provide more information.
  6. Federal Aid – If you can’t work for an extended period, you can apply for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which are both federal programs. More on the full application process below, but the first step is calling the Social Security office at 800-772-1213. In general, to qualify, you need to provide medical documents, work histories, and other information that show:
    • You’ve worked (and paid into social security via payroll taxes) for at least five of the last 10 years.
    • You can’t do work you did previously.
    • Your condition(s) prevent you from performing other work.
    • Your disability is expected to last for at least 12 months.

If your disability means you’ve never worked, (or have a sporadic work history), and your income and assets are limited, SSI may help. If you are approved, you typically qualify for Medicaid too, so that is worth looking into.

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Going Back to Work

Taking a mental health break doesn’t mean you’ll never get back to work in the same way. If it’s been a while and you want to slowly transition back, there are free programs to help, such as Social Security’s Ticket to Work There are also job placement agencies that specialize in remote and project-based work like The Second Shift and Werk.

The Application Process for SSDI or SSI

Warning: This is a bureaucratic process. Don’t be surprised if it takes several months to get a response, or if you get turned down the first time you apply. This is in part because, as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) notes, claims reviewers are not necessarily knowledgeable about mental health conditions so include as much documentation about your diagnosis as possible. To begin the process of applying for mental health-related disability, click here.

And, remember you can always appeal. If you don’t have already have a lawyer with experience in disability benefits, Plotnick suggests finding your state’s Protection & Advocacy Systems and Client Assistance Programs agency through the National Disability Rights Network. The American Bar Association also has a list of free legal resources.

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Last Updated: Aug 17, 2020