Yep, Your Depression Could Be a DisabilityIt’s a little complicated, but here’s what you need to know.
If you have firsthand experience with depression, then you know that it can seriously eff with your daily life. It can make you feel super tired, irritable, and sad. And in some cases, having depression can make seemingly easy everyday tasks (like getting out of bed or taking a shower) feel straight-up impossible. So, yeah, it’s obvious that depression messes with your ability to function, but is depression considered a disability?
The answer is yes. Depression (AKA major depressive disorder or clinical depression) qualifies as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Just as a heads up, there’s no list of specific conditions that are protected against workplace discrimination under the ADA, but the law defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,” and depression absolutely counts.
After all, the National Institute of Mental Health defines depression as a “common but serious mood disorder” with a wide range of symptoms that can make it incredibly difficult to do even basic life tasks like feeding yourself, much less all the shit you have to deal with at work. Those symptoms include (but are not limited to) persistent feelings of sadness or emptiness, decreased energy, difficulty sleeping or waking, loss of interest in hobbies, and feelings of hopelessness. Yep, those are all big hurdles to meeting deadlines and dealing with coworkers.
“Depression is a condition of the mind and body that affects our everyday functioning in our thinking, in our behaviors, in our actions, and in our feelings. It can impact the way we do things, how we interact with others, and our ability to concentrate and focus on tasks,” adds psychiatrist Susan J. Noonan, MD, MPH, author of Take Control of Your Depression.
Here, we deep dive into depression’s disability status and bring you expert-backed advice for seeking accommodations or financial support if your mental health is making it hard to keep up at work.
Why does it matter if depression is classified as a disability?
While learning that your mental health condition is technically a disability might feel kinda scary, that fact actually has some huge upsides. First, it means that the ADA legally protects you from being discriminated against at work because of your depression.
Maybe it’s not super obvious, but this kind of support can help if you tell a potential employer that you have depression and find yourself unfairly dropped from the hiring process or if you get fired after needing to take time off to care for your mental health, for example. Same goes if you’re overlooked for a promotion because of your depression, explains Dr. Noonan.
If you feel like your symptoms are getting in the way of your 9 to 5, you might also be eligible for assistance to make your work life more manageable. Per the ADA, workplaces with 15 employees or more have to provide people with depression who qualify with “reasonable accommodations” to help them do their jobs as well as someone who doesn’t have a disability.
For depression, that could look like flexible work hours to make space for therapy appointments or written instructions for assignments if depression makes it hard for you to focus, says Dr. Noonan. The goal is really just to help work around whatever symptoms are making it harder for you to do your job.
Plus, if your depression makes it impossible to work, you’re also eligible to apply for financial assistance via Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), according to the Social Security Administration. This means there’s a potential financial safety net available for you, explains Dr. Noonan.
Does a depression diagnosis mean you automatically get those benefits?
When it comes to the financial stuff from the Social Security Administration, there’s a lot of red tape. The biggest hurdle: Your symptoms have to be intense enough to keep you from working for the next year or longer. Whatsmore, “you cannot do work and engage in substantial gainful activity because of your medical condition. You cannot do work you did previously or adjust to other work because of your medical condition,” according to the Social Security Administration. So, basically, your depression needs to be severe enough to keep you from doing any type of activity that provides an income for 12 months or more. Finally, if you do qualify, there’s a five-month waiting period before the administration will start sending money.
The obstacles you’d need to overcome to get help at work under the ADA are a little less intense, but you still have to prove that your depression is negatively impacting your job performance, says Dr. Noonan. If you’re in therapy, taking meds (if that’s part of your treatment plan), and feeling like your depression is mostly under control, you probably won’t be eligible for accommodations.
Those ADA legal protections that prevent discrimination by a current or future employer are also a little tricky to access. To kick off the process, you’ll need a doctor’s note to prove that your condition makes it significantly more difficult for you to work. Then, you’ll need evidence that you’re qualified to do the job you have or want with or without reasonable accommodations (like the educational requirements, experience, and skills listed on the job description). If you have backup for both of those things, you can file a charge of employment discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
How do you formally request accommodations or benefits?
Maybe you saw this coming, but you’ll need to get a letter from your therapist or psychiatrist that acknowledges your depression diagnosis and the ways it affects your abilities at work, says Dr. Noonan. You can take that letter to your manager or HR (probably both) to talk through the areas of your day-to-day that are impacted by your symptoms. From there, you and your employer can figure out what accommodations would be helpful for you.
Of course, this all hinges on whether your company is willing to help you out. After all, the ADA says that if an employer thinks an accommodation would be too expensive, time consuming, or challenging to implement, it’s considered an “undue hardship,” and they don’t have to offer it. If you feel like your company is being unreasonable, you can file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
If your depression is so severe that you can’t get out of bed or physically take care of yourself, deciding to apply for benefits through the Social Security Administration is typically a joint decision between you and your mental healthcare provider. Just like seeking accommodations under the ADA, you’ll need a letter from your therapist or psychiatrist laying out the details of your diagnosis. But in this case, they’ll also have to say that you can't work at all for the next year or longer due to your depression, explains Dr. Noonan. And getting a medical letter is just the beginning. If you’re applying for SSDI benefits, Dr. Rutherford recommends getting a disability lawyer to help out with the process if you can.
How to get help without the ADA or SSDI
Whether you don’t qualify for a government-sponsored assist or you’d prefer to invoke the ADA as a last resort, you can totally pursue work accommodations on your own. Let’s say depression symptoms like fatigue and trouble concentrating are making it really difficult to stay on top of your workload. In that case, you can tell your boss how your diagnosis is impacting you at work and ask if you can work out a solution.
Of course, you don’t have to disclose your diagnosis, but your manager might be more likely to agree to accommodations, like a later start time due to sleep issues or extra written instructions to help with memory issues, if they know there’s a medical reason for your request, Dr. Noonan points out.
If you’d prefer not to tell your boss about your diagnosis, try approaching them with something like, “In order for me to do my best work, it would be helpful for me to have X accommodation,” suggests psychologist Margaret Robinson Rutherford, PhD, author of Perfectly Hidden Depression and host of The SelfWork Podcast.
The bottom line: Depression is a disability that’s protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act and eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits—both of which can be hugely helpful. That said, if your depression is somewhat under control, you probably won’t qualify for formal assistance—but that doesn’t mean you’re totally screwed. You still have a good chance of getting some support at work if you’re honest with your boss about what you need. And if they’re not willing to help you prioritize your mental health, it might be time to polish up your resume and head elsewhere.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.