Depression and other mental or emotional conditions can qualify as disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In fact, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces the ADA, depression is the impairment claimed in 6% to 7% of charges of disability discrimination that employees file each year.
Not all impairments qualify as disabilities. The ADA doesn’t include a list of conditions that always (or never) count as disabilities. Instead, the ADA counsels employers and courts to consider how the condition affects the individual employee. If depression substantially limits an employee’s ability to perform major life activities, then it is a disability. And, if you have a disability, your employer must provide reasonable accommodations that will allow you to do your job.
The Mayo Clinic defines depression as a mood disorder that creates a “persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest.” According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), major depression is persistent and can significantly interfere with someone’s moods, thoughts, activities, and behavior. Depression is more than a temporary case of the blues or the blahs: It can significantly disrupt daily life and cause serious symptoms such as sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, feelings of hopelessness and despair, suicidal thoughts, trouble with thinking, concentration, and memory, lack of energy, and loss of interest in normal activities, from exercise to socializing to sex.
The ADA defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Depression counts as a mental impairment, but it must substantially limit a major life activity to qualify as a disability that your employer must accommodate. Here’s how the law defines these terms.
Tasks and functions that are basic to our everyday lives qualify as major life activities. For example, seeing, walking, hearing, and standing are major life activities that might be impaired by physical disabilities, such as paralysis, blindness, or back injuries. Major life activities that are often impaired by mental conditions, including depression, include sleeping, concentrating, thinking, communicating, interacting with others, eating, taking care of yourself, and regulating your emotions and thoughts.
Major bodily functions are also considered major life activities. If, for example, your depression affects the proper functioning of your neurological system, that would qualify as a limitation on a major bodily function.
You don’t have to be completely incapable of sleeping, concentrating, or thinking, for example, to be substantially limited in performing these major life activities. Under the ADA, you are substantially limited if your ability to perform these tasks is limited in comparison to the general population. In making this determination, your employer should consider the manner, duration, and condition in which you can perform the activity. For example, if you can sleep for only a few hours a night, your ability to sleep is substantially limited. If it’s very difficult for you to concentrate, and you can’t focus for more than short periods of time, your ability to think is substantially limited.
The ADA does not consider “mitigating measures”—medication or other devices or assistance you might use to ameliorate the effects of your disability—when determining whether you are substantially limited. For example, if you have suffered several episodes of major depression, but your condition is currently controlled with medication, you still have a disability even though you may show no signs of impairment. The key is how your condition affects you when it is active and untreated.
If you suffer from depression and you believe you need a reasonable accommodation, speak to your employer. Legally, you are entitled to a reasonable accommodation—a change to the job or the workplace—that will allow you to do your job with your disability, unless providing it would cause your employer undue hardship. Reasonable accommodations for depression might include scheduling changes, time off work to attend therapy appointments or for hospitalization, or changes in the way work is assigned, among other things. For more information, see the EEOC’s guidance on depression, PTSD, and other mental health conditions.