Articles Posted in Mental Health

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Jessica Ellis

On September 24, 2004, in Tambash v. St. Bonaventure, a New York District Court held that an employer is on notice that leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) may be needed where the employer is aware of its employees’ mental health condition.  While this case is not new, it is worth looking back at.  Tambash ensures that employers who know of their employees need for leave are not off the hook.

In Tambash, Plaintiff Terrence N. Tambash accepted a position by St. Bonaventure University (the “University”) as a security personnel and rose to Director of Security Services.  Ten years later, Mr. Tambash began to experience depression and anxiety.  Due to the significant decline of his mental health, Mr. Tambash requested a one-month vacation to deal with his stress and depression and notified his supervisor that he would need to take a medical leave for mental health reasons after returning from vacation.  Mr. Tambash was an FMLA-eligible employee.  Unfortunately, while on vacation, Mr. Tambash received a letter stating that the University had terminated his employment due to unsatisfactory work performance, neglecting his duties, and incompetence.  Mr. Tambash sued, alleging that the University had interfered with his right to take leave under the FMLA.

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Leah Kessler

Enacted in 1990 by President George H. W. Bush, the American with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”) is a federal civil rights law prohibiting discrimination on the basis disability.  The ADA defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of having such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment.”  With its passage, for the first time, Congress recognized that physical and mental disabilities in no way diminish a person’s right to fully participate in all aspects of society, and curbed prejudice, antiquated attitudes, and societal and institutional barriers that people with physical or mental disabilities frequently face.  As one of the most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation, the ADA ensures that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else.

Title I of the ADA (“Title I”) addresses disability discrimination in the workplace, helping individuals with disabilities access the same employment opportunities and benefits available to people without disabilities.  An important component of the ADA—and a feature that is unique among other civil rights laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964—is its requirement that employers provide reasonable accommodations to qualified applicants or employees.  A “reasonable accommodation” is a change that accommodates employees with disabilities so they can do their job without causing the employer “undue hardship.”  Title I also establishes guidelines for the reasonable accommodation process and addresses medical examinations and inquiries.  Title I applies to employers with at least 15 employees.

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By Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

In Beaton v. Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Southern District of New York denied a motion filed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (“MTA”) to dismiss Earl Beaton’s disability discrimination claims under the American with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”), including wrongful termination, failure to provide a reasonable accommodation, and retaliation claims.  Beaton had appeared to be sleeping on the job because his schizophrenia medication caused his eyes to close.  The MTA immediately suspended and then terminated his employment, despite having knowledge of his disability.  Beaton maintained that “his disability was the cause of his termination.”

Beaton was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1985.  Schizophrenia is a chronic and severe mental disorder that affects how a person thinks, feels, and behaves.  Although schizophrenia is not as common as other mental disorders and the symptoms can be very disabling, it can be treated with the right medications. Beaton’s symptoms included depression, anxiety, paranoia, mental instability, auditory hallucinations, and the belief that other people can read his mind.  As a result, Beaton’s schizophrenia impairs his ability to work, think, communicate, sleep, learn, focus, concentrate, and remain awake.  Beaton received psychiatric care since his diagnosis and has been successful in treating his mental condition with antipsychotic medication.  Specifically, Beaton was prescribed Fluphenazine for the past ten years, which permitted him to maintain stable periods without schizophrenia symptoms.

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The past six weeks of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation have marked one of the most monumental political events of Trump’s presidency and Supreme Court History. Over 20 million people watched live as Dr. Christine Blasey Ford accused a Supreme Court nominee of sexual assault before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  The hearing highlighted critical issues of political agenda, government policy, and gender discrimination.  Additionally, it compelled viewers to consider the deep-seated, long-term impact of sexual trauma and the importance of sexual violence in today’s political and social climate.

According to the United States Department of Justice, sexual assault is “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.” Perpetrators of sexual abuse are not only physically abusive, but are verbally abusive, antagonistic, and emotionally manipulative. The topic of sexual violence in our society is multi-faceted and complex, rooted deeply in our historical and legal suppression of women. In examining these issues, cultural scientists often focus on the corrosive power of hyper-sexualization in media and  “rape culture,” a term coined by feminists in the late-70s that covers all “jokes, music, advertising, legal jargon, laws, words and imagery” that normalize sexual coercion. People promoting rape culture often regard the prominence of sexual assault as an “inevitable” facet of reality. The effects of over-sexualization and sexual commodification have been distinctly linked to mental conditions such as depression and eating disorders. Additionally, the hyper-sexualization of modern culture has enabled and permitted the ambiguity surrounding the definition of sexual abuse to continue.

Moreover, while there are 321,500 cases of rape and sexual assault reported annually in the U.S., this number is far less than the projected actual number, as victims are often too afraid to report their experiences. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, whose traumatic experience of sexual assault went unreported for decades, is a classic example of “the silent victim.”  The uniqueness of her case being made public allows us to understand more deeply how an “indelible” trauma like sexual assault can affect our relationships, well-being and sense of safety for years following the incident. The effects of sexual abuse have been linked to an enormity of physiological conditions such as PTSD, borderline personality disorder, substance abuse, suicide, insomnia, panic attacks, generalized anxiety, sexual dysfunction, reproductive disease, cancer, digestive issues, emotional instability, autoimmune dysfunction, diabetes, and heart disease. (New Scientist, Committee on Healthcare) Sexual trauma impacts not only victims, but families, communities, companies, economies, and the environment.  Financially, rape is the “costliest crime for victims in the United States,” racking up to $127 billion annually.  These costs include medical, mental health, social and emergency services; insurance; legal costs; and lost productivity, wages, and fringe benefits.

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While the workplace has considerably evolved within the last decades to more openly recognize the diverse needs of employees, there still remains a large stigma around workers’ mental wellbeing. Statistics reveal striking contrast between the ubiquity of mental health issues and how few people seek treatment. In the United States, one in five adults, or 43.8 million people, experience a mental malady within a year, yet the long-held stigma about mental health keeps more than 50 percent of workers from seeking employee-covered care to support their physiological wellness. (One Medical, 2017) Employees largely do not disclose mental health issues, reportedly, for fear of job loss, lack of promotion, eventual replacement or judgement from colleagues.  As a result, approximately $27 billion dollars are lost annually to mental health-related absences in the workplace. (Office Vibe, 2014)

According to experts like Mary Deacon, who heads one of Canada’s largest mental health initiatives, the corporate environment has suffered from creating an “artificial separation” between mental and physical health. (Concordia, 2013) Until now, it has been more acceptable within the professional environment to recognize employees with physical disabilities or illnesses. Deacon expresses, however, that raising awareness around mental health is now gaining as much traction as cancer and AIDS-awareness movements garnered in the last decades, and rightfully so.  With over 80 percent of people working more than 48 hours weekly and with 50 percent of workers reporting they experience extreme stress at work, places of business must consider how to address the topic of mental health on multiple levels. (Office Vibe, 2014)

Companies can support whole-person health through the design and management of their company culture, choice of health care policies and employee benefits. Team leaders can initiate conversations that foster and promote a healthy work place. Bringing the subject of mental wellness to light can be a useful tool for promoting a sense of security within the job environment for workers. Initiatives can be taken to bring in Employee Assistant Professionals to speak to employees about mental health resources and the effectiveness of getting support to ease stress. Leadership training can facilitate efficient communication within the workplace and can be a useful tool to support greater wellness at work and improve colleague and client relations.

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