Press Releases

People With Severe Mental Illness Speak Out For The First Time In Study On Effects Of Stigma

NAMI Findings Illustrate Important Role EEOC Guidelines Will Play In Eliminating Employment Barriers

May 20 1997

San Diego, CA - One in three individuals with severe mental illness has been turned down for a job for which they were qualified because of a psychiatric label, according to a new study released today at the American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting by the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI). The study, Consumer Experience with Stigma: Results of a National Survey, represents the experiences of 1300 individuals diagnosed with biologically-based brain disorders including schizophrenia, manic-depression and major depression.

"The study results confirm our worst fears," said Laurie M. Flynn, NAMI Executive Director. "The stigma of severe mental illness is preventing capable individuals from fulfilling their potential. In many cases, the rejection and discrimination is far more painful than the illness." Seven out of ten respondents said they have been treated as less competent by others when their illness became known. Survey participants relayed personal experiences of stigma still prevalent in today's society:

"When I was first diagnosed , I made the mistake of telling my supervisor at the time what was going on. She decided I couldn't handle a job I'd been doing for ten years and demoted me."

"Upon my return to work, telling my co-workers about my mental illness was not a consideration -- hiding it was."

"I applied for employment at a well-known national engineering company and received a job offering with the condition that I bring a work release from my doctor. (The company knew that I had not been working due to an illness.) When I gave them the note stating that I was mentally ill but could now work, they discovered they could no longer afford to hire me."

The study, which was conducted by Dr. Otto Wahl, Ph.D., of George Mason University, underscores the importance of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidance recently issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC guidance provide clarity and muscle to the employment provision of the ADA as they apply to employers and to individuals with severe mental illnesses. These guidance will better enable EEOC fieldworkers to resolve cases involving persons with these disorders. In addition, the regulations will help employers, many of whom have been uncertain about what they can and cannot do under the ADA.

"This study shows that in addition to many other challenges, individuals with severe mental illness are stigmatized and face discrimination in the workplace," added Ms. Flynn. "The EEOC's guidance does not create a system of preferential treatment or ease performance standards. It merely helps ensure that the stigma surrounding mental illness does not, in itself, create a hostile work environment."

NAMI is the nation's largest grassroots organization solely dedicated to improving the lives of persons with severe mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder (manic-depressive illness), major depression, and anxiety disorders. NAMI has more than 140,000 individual members and 1,140 state and local affiliates in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Canada. NAMI's efforts focus on support to persons with serious brain disorders and to their families; advocacy for non-discriminatory and equitable federal and state policies; research into the causes, symptoms and treatments for brain disorders; and education to eliminate the pervasive stigma toward severe mental illness.