If you suffer from a mental illness like depression, does it mean you have a disability? Surprisingly, the answer is yes – but it also depends.
A mental illness can be considered a disability only if you choose to declare it as such. If you do, your employer is legally obliged to give you reasonable accommodation, which, according to Dr Lori Eddy, a counselling psychologist, can include flexible working hours, time off for appointments with mental health professionals and having a designated support person at work.
A fairly simple procedure
“Once you have disclosed [your condition],” she says, “you are protected from discrimination by the labour law."
Justine Del Monte, a labour lawyer based in Cape Town, points to the Employment Equity Act that states a person with a disability is defined as someone with “a long-term or recurring physical or mental impairment which substantially limits their prospects of entry into, or advancement in, employment”.
Jeannine Scheltens, divisional HR manager at 24.com, explains that disclosing mental illness as a disability is a fairly simple procedure. “When we employ someone [at Media24], part of the documentation you need to fill out is an EEA1 form from the department of labour that asks what demographic you are, gender and whether you have a disability.” She says that is where you will declare your mental health as a disability.
“Before we can load it onto our system, we need verify the information. We’ll request a letter from your therapist to substantiate your disability and why you are declaring it as such.”
It’s a two-way street
Mental health, however, is a two-way street.
“To be protected by the law, you have a duty to take steps to manage your mental health condition and moderate the impact on your functioning,” explains Dr Eddy. “You need to receive a formal diagnosis, engage in therapy and take medication if necessary.”
Disclosing a mental illness as a disability should not affect your career growth unless it has a hampering effect on your ability to gain or retain employment or get promoted.
“Take a silly example,” Shelagh Goodwin, general manager of human resources at Media24, says. “Someone might ask if wearing glasses a disability. The answer to that is generally no because many people wear glasses. No one is going to limit your employment opportunities because you wear glasses, unless you want to be a pilot. Perhaps it might be a disability in that context!”
So, if I’m depressed, does that mean I’m disabled?
“Some people might not see it as a disability and don’t feel they need to declare it – it’s up to the person,” says Scheltens. “It’s not up to us; in the same way we can’t say, ‘We see you have a partial leg amputation, which means you have a disability.’ We cannot decide that for the person – the person has to do it themselves. They might not see it as a disability because their functioning is not impaired.”
Whether or not you choose to disclose your mental illness as a disability, Dr Eddy urges you to take care of your mental health. “It should be a daily priority to avoid a build-up of stress and other symptoms, which could lead to a crisis point.” Make sure you get enough sleep, eat healthily and exercise regularly.
“If you do start to feel overwhelmed and are struggling to function at your best, seek help from a professional who can help with coping strategies,” Dr Eddy says.
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