National Disability Employment Awareness Month: A Focus on Mental Health

Since 1945, Congress has sought to educate the public about the role of people with disabilities in the labor force. Originally known as “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week,” Congress broadened its celebration and instituted “National Disability Employment Awareness Month” (NDEAM) as an annual October celebration in 1988. This celebration coincides with Mental Illness Awareness Week, recognized by Congress since 1990 to educate the public about mental illness. The overlap between these two observances is particularly relevant in light of the continuing COVID-19 crisis and the acute and ongoing strains it has placed on all of us.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness. Examples of common mental illnesses include bipolar disorder, persistent depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and social anxiety disorder. In April of 2021, the Director of NIMH, Dr. Joshua A. Gordon, described a June 2020 CDC survey conducted with U.S. adults in his blog. This survey described 31% of respondents reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression, 13% reporting having started or increased substance use, 26% reporting stress-related symptoms, and 11% reporting having serious thoughts of suicide in the past 30 days. Dr. Gordon notes that these numbers are nearly double the rates expected before the pandemic and that a notable number of these individuals will develop chronic symptoms severe enough to meet clinical criteria for a mental illness. These findings are supported by findings cited in Dana Wilkie’s October 2020 article “Workers’ Mental Health Suffers During the Pandemic: How Managers Can Help.”

What does this mean for employers?

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has placed both acute and chronic stressors on employees. These stressors may lead to more employees meeting clinical criteria for a mental illness.
  • Employers are more likely to have an increased number of employees with chronic mental health conditions that meet the criteria of a disability.
  • Employers need to identify strategies and supports to meet the needs of employees with mental health conditions.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers with 15 or more employees to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, including those with mental illness. In light of this requirement and the trends reported by NIMH and the CDC, employers need to ask what they can do to accommodate and support their employees. The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) and the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN), offer advice in this area.

  • JAN has developed an Accommodation and Compliance: Mental Health Conditions information page that describes common mental health conditions, their recognition by the ADA, and ideas for accommodating employees with them.
  • EARN has developed a Mental Health Toolkit to assist employers in building awareness and a supportive culture, provide accommodations, offer employee assistance, and ensure access to treatment.

It is unknown when the COVID-19 pandemic will end and what the final impact will be on our workplaces, ourselves, and our families. However, employers and employees are in this together, and we should take this occasion to collectively support each other as we commemorate NDEAM and Mental Illness Awareness Week.

Focus or Topic