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How to be Inclusive of Employees with Mental Health Disabilities

The best way to honor Mental Health Awareness Month is to understand how your actions affect others.

Your program director. The new policy advisor who starts work in your department next week. Maybe even you. More than 51 million adults in the United States have a mental illness. Chances are, you work alongside people with mental health disabilities every day. We are the team members you rely on to perform at high levels and to produce quality work.

I say “we” because I am a government contractor with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder — both mental health disabilities. I have 15 years of experience in strategic communications; I’ve managed projects in areas spanning from emerging technology to inclusion for vulnerable populations; I’ve written opinion pieces for The Washington Post; and served as a guest lecturer at American University. In short, I’ve been a successful employee who just happens to have mental health disabilities.

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, let’s take a few minutes to refresh our understanding of mental health disabilities in the workplace, what government agencies and organizations are doing to support their employees’ mental health, and how we can create a more inclusive workplace for people with mental health disabilities. 

What You Should Know

Anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD, schizophrenia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are considered disabilities under the American’s with Disabilities Act. These disabilities are often collectively referred to using different terms, including illnesses, conditions, and disorders. I prefer “mental health disabilities,” as the term draws attention to our rights as people with disabilities under ADA.

Mental health disabilities are often invisible and have traditionally been surrounded by stigma. And, despite protections under ADA, “eight in 10 workers say shame and stigma prevent them from seeking treatment for a mental health condition.” When they do disclose, they can run into roadblocks in the way of securing reasonable accommodations often due to a lack of employer understanding of mental health disabilities and bias. Throughout my years as a communications professional, I have run up against bias in the workplace. One employer went so far as to say, “I needed to just deal with it,” in reference to my requests for reasonable accommodations to support my disability. 

The pandemic has wreaked havoc on our emotional well-being. About one in four people have reported experiencing anxiety or depression, up from one in 10 prior to COVID-19. As an unexpected result, it has shined a bat signal-sized spotlight on mental health. Conversations about mental health support in the workplace are becoming commonplace and government agencies and contractors are making significant efforts to support employees’ mental health and people with mental health disabilities.

The Biden administration’s proclamation on Mental Health Awareness Month shows the White House’s commitment to supporting people with mental health conditions: the Office of Personnel Management is urging agencies to support their staff’s mental health; the associate chief information officer at IRS introduced mindfulness meditation into staff meetings, an effort she believes (as do I), “can be the first step to normalizing mental health issues” in the workplace; government contractors such as Wheelhouse Group, the company where I work, launched new areas of work to support government agencies in creating more inclusive workplaces, including for people with mental health disabilities; and disability advocates at corporations like Microsoft are engaging in conversations about normalizing mental health in the workplace.

What You Can Do

There are many ways you can create a more inclusive environment for your employees with mental health disabilities. Here are three tips that will help you get started with resources to learn more about what you can do:

1. Understand needs and accommodations. Learn about different types of mental health disabilities and the different accommodations that can assist them in their jobs. If you don’t have a firm understanding of how to support employees with disabilities, it will be difficult to create an inclusive workplace

2. Participate in campaigns to support mental health awareness. Regularly communicate your commitment to supporting employees with mental health disabilities. Not only does this show you care for your employees with mental health disabilities, but it also draws attention to your commitment to the well-being of all your staff. 

3. Create open communication channels. Including people with mental health disabilities in your messaging about inclusion shows staff that you recognize their needs. To expand your support, encourage staff to disclose their mental health disabilities so you can provide them with accommodations that best support them in their jobs.

As discussions about mental health and mental health disabilities in the workplace become more commonplace, agencies, contractors and organizations that embrace inclusion are more likely to attract and retain great employees, with and without disabilities, who seek supportive work environments. I’m grateful every day to work for a team and for a government agency that has created a place where I feel safe to not only be open with my colleagues about my disabilities but to write about it in a public forum. 

Devin Quinn is a senior consultant at Wheelhouse Group, a consulting firm guiding business and technology change in the public and private sector. In this role, she supports the Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology and the Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship.