Mental illness can make life more difficult — but can your employer fire you because of it?
Television host Cat Greenleaf filed a disability-discrimination suit against NBC CMCSA, -1.39% Tuesday claiming the company fired her because of her depression. Greenleaf, who hosted the channel’s ‘Talk Stoop’ show, was terminated days after alerting her supervisors she had fallen into a “severe depression” following the death of a close friend. Greenleaf has struggled with depression since age 7.
“I’ve been working to help my family and myself through a very painful process,” she said in the email to her bosses, according to the lawsuit. “Grief is real, but like anxiety, depression and addiction, it’s easy to discount since it’s not tangible.”
Her lawsuit claims “it’s clear” the firing was based on discrimination due to Greenleaf’s mental illness, and she is seeking “compensatory and consequential damages.” The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides protection against discrimination for employees with disabilities, including mental illness.
NBC CMCSA, -1.39% did not immediately respond to request for comment but previously told the New York Post: “Cat’s employment was terminated for legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons. The lawsuit is without merit.”
Employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for people with mental illnesses, including allowing them to schedule work around weekly therapy appointments and permitting them to work from home. Employees can be legally fired if their mental illness makes them unable to perform their job or a danger to themselves and others, which isn’t always easy to prove, said Larry Cary, a lawyer at Cary Cane Legal in New York City, which represents professionals in workplace discrimination suits.
“Disability cases involving mental health are difficult cases for both lawyers and the court because you are dealing with an illness you can’t see,” he said. “You can’t simply look at a broken leg and say ‘it’s broken.’”
Another complication: In order to qualify for protection under the ADA you must have informed your employer of your mental illness. This could open the employee up to other difficulties, however, said Michelle Riba, director at the University of Michigan Depression Center, adding that knowledge of an employee’s mental health issues could subconsciously affect hiring and promotion decisions higher-ups make in the future.
“We are all entitled to confidentiality and when we decide we don’t want something to remain confidential, we need to think through what the ramifications might be,” she said. “On a personal level it’s important to gauge where you are working and what impact it could have.”
However companies are increasingly treating mental health like any other illness, and it pays: Depression costs the U.S. economy more than $51 billion a year in absenteeism from work and $26 billion in direct treatment costs. Some companies even offer free meditation and yoga classes. Consumer goods company Unilever UL, -0.12% for example, includes training for senior employees to recognize potential mental health problems and employee workshops on sleep, mindfulness and exercise.