what happened when I asked for accommodations for my mental illness (at work)

I had never had the idea of asking for accommodations for my mental illness until I had the idea of asking for accommodations for my mental illness.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), people with disabilities, whether physical or mental, are allowed to ask for “reasonable accommodations” and most employers must provide them.

Is your mental illness a disability?

This is a little note for those who have never thought of their mental illness as a disability:

According to the ADA, a person has a disability if he/she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having an impairment.

So, if your mental illness makes it hard for you to sleep, work, concentrate, think, regulate your emotions, or care for yourself (“major life activities”), then it is a disability under the ADA.

By the way, if you've never had an accommodation for your mental illness, and it's acting up now whether because of COVID-19 or any other reason, it's never too late to request one.

Last summer I was recovering from my hospitalization while also preparing to work at a new internship. I knew there would be challenges for me given the state I was in. Frankly, my normal confidence had fallen and I didn’t feel able to do “normal” things “normally.”

I had never needed an accommodation before, and I needed to 1. educate myself on it and 2. be my own advocate.

What accommodations could I ask for? What would help me? To get me thinking, I used that handy internet thing to look what options exist and might be helpful for me.

I found that there are all kinds of variations but that they generally link up with a few categories: management/supervision/communication, environmental needs and flexibility in scheduling.

After brainstorming the best potential options for me, my next step was to talk with my therapist, someone who I hoped knew lots about this topic. I asked her: if my employer requires a doctors’ note, would you be willing to provide it? She answered yes.

Armed with my therapist’s promise, I decided to ask for the following…

– to come into the office later in the morning
– for flexibility in working from home
– for occasional leave for my upcoming appointments.

…in hopes of remedying my:
– lack of control of emotions
– decreased stamina or drowsiness (from new meds)
– stress intolerance.

So, how did it go?

This conversation took place over a year ago; I don’t remember all of the details. What I do remember is gathering myself to sit in the desk across from her in her office (the chair that made disgusting noises if you ever were to push it in on the carpet. I have goosebumps in the worst way just thinking about it). She had lots of plants in her office and lots of books. She liked to wear tank tops.

I remember disclosing that I have a “psychiatric disability” but not my diagnoses. Saying “psychiatric disability” felt silly and dramatic to me at the time. It’s not a phrase I actually used, nor do I now.

I felt instant empathy from supervisor. I say empathy instead of sympathy, even if I felt she may have been a bit saddened by what she’d heard. Maybe she has had similar experiences.

The most memorable part of the conversation was when she told me to let me know, if I wanted, about any of my triggers. She would be happy to help by being more sensitive to them. Clearly she knew something about something!

You may be wondering about how my requests were received, respected and formalized.  

We negotiated one of the requests — the working from home one. She said she wanted to see my eyeballs as much as possible, which I understand when hiring someone new and having them only for a short period of time. We compromised that I would work Fridays from home.

She was flexible with both my hours and my need to leave for appointments.

We did not formalize my request or accommodations by drawing up paperwork with HR. I don’t remember if I summarized our conversation in an email after the fact, but I recommend doing that! I offered to get my supervisor a doctors’ note, but she did not require one. Perhaps the accommodations seemed reasonable enough or perhaps the length of my employment (very short) was a factor.

The process of requesting, negotiating and receiving accommodations largely depends on your organization — the culture, the rules, the people. While my supervisor did not request a written doctors’ note, yours might.

Depending on your organization, there may be a way to ask for a specific accommodation without revealing your mental illness. For example, you may ask your boss how they feel about your arrival earlier or later. You may ask if you can work in a different space. You may ask if they can communicate with you or give you tasks in a certain way.

Yeah, but won’t I be, like, playing the “mental illness” card?

First thing’s first:

The stigmatization of mental illness chips away at the perception of its legitimacy. I imagine that most people with mental illness have questioned the legitimacy of their illness in their lifetime. I do often, especially with doctors.

Don’t let society’s — AND YOUR OWN BRAIN’S — stigma and perception of mental illness keep you from advocating for myself SO THAT you can do your best work, in the most healthy way for you.

Preparation tips & affirmations

  • Know your rights. Read some articles like I did.
  • The right employer for you will reasonably accommodate you.
  • You want to do good work but you want to do it in the healthiest way for you. Similarly your employer wants you and your good work. The right employer for you will make this possible. All will be better for it.
  • When brainstorming the best accommodations for you, ask yourself: how can I best do my work at this organization?

oh and by the way – join my NEW email list

P.S. in case we haven’t met…

you seem normal is a mental health medium run by 24-year-old communication professional (hello!) who… well, seems normal.  Turns out, my roommate is mental illness. Actually more like my unborn, and non-conceived baby. Because it’s like, inside of me. This is getting weird already. Topics of focus: self-awareness (we love it), mood, anger management, perfectionism, relationships & boundaries.

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