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EEO Laws

Mental Illness and ADA: Five Things Managers Get Wrong

May 14, 2015

sad manThe stigma around mental illness has kept many in the dark about the realities of this kind of medical challenge. Even with public service campaigns and countless articles in the popular press, most people still think:

1) Mental illness is rare 
2) Overcoming mental illness is about attitude, pulling oneself up, or just "getting over it."
3) Mental illness is a character flaw
4) You can tell who is mentally ill just by looking at them or talking with them
5) Mentally ill people are dangerous, untrustworthy and cannot perform well in a workplace

Not surprisingly, these are also the same five things most managers get wrong when dealing with employees or job applicants who have mental illness challenges. Getting it wrong in any context is problematic. But in the workplace, management mistakes when it comes to candidates or employees with mental illness can lead to ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) violations and subsequent fines and lawsuits. 

So what's wrong with the five statements above? The fact is, they're wrong. And acting on them can lead to serious legal consequences.

Instead of the fallacies,here's an ADA-focused answer to all five common misconceptions. 

1) Mental illness is rare. FALSE

According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, in any given year between 18 and 25% of adults in the U.S. are battling a diagnosable mental illness. That means almost 1 in 4 of us are facing these challenges at any one time. And probably 1 in 4 of your job applicants, employees and management staff. The sheer number of people facing these challenges at any one time is one of the key reasons mental illness is included under ADA protection. 

2) Overcoming mental illness is all about attitude. FALSE

Many people still think the "mental" aspect of psychiatric illnesses implies that these disabilities and challenges can be "fixed" simply by thinking positively or exercising more or even getting a makeover. Sadly, this attitude also colors managerial decisions about hiring, promotion and firing. They believe that Employee X shouldn't be promoted because they aren't trying hard enough to cheer up. Or Applicant Y isn't the right hire despite their exceptional skills and qualifications, because they don't interview well due to their Asperger's. (After all, they could "get over it" if they tried.) 

While there is nothing in the ADA that give people with disabilities preference in applying for jobs or promotions, refusing the otherwise best qualified candidate because of their mental illness is grounds for a fine and/or lawsuit. 

3) Mental illness is a character flaw. FALSE. 

There's a lot of talk these days about charcter based hiring. The idea is that people of good character will make better employees. The problem comes in defining character without stepping into discrimination. And the common falsehood that psychiatric illnesses are actually character flaws is right at the core of that issue. The truth is, mental illness is no more reflective of a person's innate goodness or honesty than diabetes, cancer or a heart condition. Excluding applicants based on character tests that flag mental illness is a direct ADA violation. 

4) You can tell who is mentally ill. 

 This idea probably got its start in the media and literature, where those with psychiatric challenges are portrayed as clearly outside of the normal ranges of behaviour. But in real life, not all (or even most) people facing mental challenges strut around like Ophelia, pout like Hamlet or scrub away at phantom blood spots like Lady Macbeth. 

Not only is it very unlikely that you can tell which job applicant is ill, the ADA prevents employers from asking or requiring medical visits or testing before a job offer is tendered. And if a post-job tender examination (which can only be one required for all applicants) reveals a mental illness, the offer cannot be withdrawn without showing essential business necessity that is directly impacted by the disability. 

 5) Mentally ill people are dangerous

Again, we have the media and popular fiction to thank for this piece of common (and mistaken) wisdom. While some psychiatric conditions do increase the risk of violent behavior. the mere designation of a mental illness cannot be used to disqualify a person because they 'might" become dangerous or because some people will this ailment have been dangerous. Each employee's situation, illness, treatment and outcome will be different, so each must be evaluated separately. 

As a manager, your job is to find and lead the best people for each role in the company. Knowing the realities of mental illness, and the standards imposed by the ADA will help you identify and develop the best talents in your company, without unfairly excluding people with an illness so many of us will face sometime in our lives. 



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