March 13, 2019

By Amy Taylor, MS, CTRS

I experienced discrimination after disclosing my bipolar disorder to an employer. I was working for a state agency that serves thousands of disabled adults. At first, it seemed like a perfect fit. I was a social services specialist, and my job was to assess clients in the nursing home and assist in the discharge process. For the first few months, I was receiving praise for my work ethic and performance. It was the best job I ever landed, and it had excellent benefits. I planned to retire there. 

After a few months, the stress of a new job coupled with a family crisis lowered my immune system. I got sick with the flu twice followed by sinusitis and then bronchitis. This occurred over four months, and I had to miss a few days as a result. My supervisor was putting pressure on me to work while sick as I was still in probationary status. Often, I was coming to work very sick. One day, a nurse forced me to leave because I was so sick. 

I was having extreme difficulty breathing and was prescribed prednisone, a steroid which, unbeknownst to me, can cause mania. I was already struggling with extreme anxiety, but the medication triggered mania. It became more difficult for me to hold back my frustration at work. I voiced my frustrations to a co-worker or two about having to work while sick. I am sure my frustrations made it back to my supervisor.

I decided to formally request accommodations in the workplace. I knew the process was going to take some time. At the same time, I was sick with bronchitis and still experiencing mania from the prednisone, so I decided to take a medical leave. I was out of work for a week. I experienced a crash after stopping the prednisone. I was experiencing both suicidal ideation and mania. I found an outpatient program and was encouraged by my provider and primary care physician to attend. 

I was open with my supervisor, keeping her aware of my condition and the treatment needed for me to recover. My supervisor encouraged the medical leave and treatment, stating that my health was the only thing holding me back. Otherwise, she felt I would pass probationary status. She again complimented my work, stating my assessments “blew her away” as they were so thorough. As in many jobs, it has never been my performance that causes problems for me. It’s often the absences relating to my mental illness and my “visible frustration” when I become manic or anxious. 

It was during my medical leave that things shifted at work. My supervisor began to request much more medical documentation. It was invasive, and I began to feel uncomfortable. After being away from work for a few weeks, I provided my supervisor with the medical release for me to return. I was told to come back to work on a Monday at 3:00 p.m. It was going to be the first meeting regarding my accommodations request. 

I went to the meeting and there were five people present. Three people from human resources, my supervisor and the regional director. It was a very intimidating experience. Midway through the meeting, I realized I was getting fired. Even though this was my very first meeting regarding my accommodations request, they stated they had been accommodating me all along. 

All the accolades of praise that I had experienced prior to my return, were no longer true. They said I had been causing strain on the department. Oddly enough, before I left on medical leave, I had taken on additional work to help a colleague whose husband was very ill. She had been out for a few weeks, so I carried her caseload. But apparently, they have a different standard if you have to take leave because of mental illness.

They misinterpreted my provider’s documentation and used it as evidence that I could not work. I received a three-page letter the following day, inaccurately reflecting my performance, which stated that I was disqualified from my position due to my disability. In an effort to save my job, I had my provider write a letter clarifying that he supported me working. I received no response. 

I was devastated. I retained a lawyer and got a settlement. However, it wasn’t nearly enough for the damages sustained. I experienced a major relapse for an entire year. I have not been working and was denied social security disability. Ironically, the same entity who discriminated against me and fired me for having a disability is the same one that has denied me disability benefits. 

I have been living with my ex-spouse, unable to be independent. I do not have access to vocational rehabilitation to be re-trained. I am slowly recovering, but I have been severely depressed for the past year. I do feel I am improving, but it’s been tough.   

Employers are required under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) to provide reasonable accommodations, when requested, to an employee with a disability as long as it does not cause undue hardship on the employer. Failing to do so is not only a discriminatory practice, but it can potentially cause job loss and loss of insurance. Like any form of discrimination, it can have long-lasting damage to the individual who experiences it. 

For more information on your rights if you feel you are being discriminated against in the workplace because of your mental illness, check the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission webpage.

Amy Taylor is a registered recreation therapist who has primarily worked in eldercare, providing recreation programming for older adults. She is currently not working, but spending time writing about her healing process on WordPress: Amy enjoys singing, nature, travel, photography and writing.  

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