Mariah Carey Won’t Let Bipolar Diagnosis “Define” or “Control” Her

Mariah Carey, known as an iconic singer-songwriter and a dramatic diva, disclosed to People magazine last week that she has bipolar disorder.  Although she was first diagnosed in 2001, Carey says she finally sought treatment recently after “the hardest couple of years [she’s] been through.” (Among her recent personal and professional issues, you may recall Carey’s 2014 divorce from America’s Got Talent host Nick Cannon, her short-lived romance to Australian businessman James Packer, and her less-than-stellar New Year’s Eve performance in 2016.) Carey is far from being the only one in Tinseltown with an official mental health diagnosis. From Demi Lovato and Britney Spears to Catherine Zeta-Jones and Guns N’ Roses lead singer Axl Rose, Carey joins numerous celebrities diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

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One of the most outspoken celebrities to talk about living with bipolar disorder, Carrie Fisher (best known as Princess Leia from Star Wars), described it as follows: “I have two moods. One is Roy, rollicking Roy, the wild ride of a mood. And Pam, sediment Pam who stands on the shore and sobs . . . Sometimes the tide is in, sometimes it’s out.”  In her last “Ask Carrie Fisher” advice column published in The Guardian, Fisher further stated, “[I] have been given a challenging illness, and there is no other option than to meet those challenges.” With a similar persistence against being stigmatized and held back by her diagnosis, Mariah Carey told People, “It does not have to define you, and I refuse to allow it to define me or control me.”

For the approximately 44 million adults in the U.S. that experience mental illness in a given year, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides critical protections to prevent the stigma of mental illness from being a barrier to employment. One such protection, as explained in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC’s) December 2016 mental health-related guidance, is that employers cannot ask medical questions (including ones about mental health conditions), unless one of the following applies:

  1. The employee requests a reasonable accommodation.
  2. After the employee receives a job offer, but before employment begins (so long as this practice is used for all applicants in the same job category).
  3. The employer is engaging in affirmative action for individuals with disabilities (in which case a response is optional).
  4. There exists objective evidence that an employee may be unable to perform their essential job functions or may pose a safety risk to themselves or others.

The ADA also requires employers to keep medical information separate from personnel files and maintain it as confidential.

As a result of the ADA’s various strict privacy protections, many employers are understandably reluctant to inquire into the personal matters of an employee. When an employee makes a disclosure similar to Carey’s and seeks assistance performing one or more of his job duties, however, the employer must engage in the interactive process to determine what, if any, job accommodation can be offered to the employee. Rather than relying on WebMD or the latest episode of Grey’s Anatomy as a guide, the ADA allows employers to request supporting medical documentation from the employee’s health care provider prior to granting the accommodation request.  In its Enforcement Guidance on Disability-Related Inquiries and Medical Examinations of Employees under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the EEOC provides detailed information regarding when it is permissible for employers to make disability-related inquiries of employees. Another helpful resource for employers is the EEOC’s 2017 fact sheet for mental health providers. Although the fact sheet is aimed at educating health care providers about their role in the accommodation process, the EEOC essentially approves employers to seek the following information:

  1. The health care provider’s professional qualifications and the nature and length of the relationship with the employee;
  2. The nature of the employee’s condition;
  3. The employee’s functional limitations in the absence of treatment;
  4. The need for a reasonable accommodation, including how the employee’s symptoms make changes at work necessary and the specific problems that may be helped by a reasonable accommodation; and
  5. Suggested accommodations if the health care provider is aware of any.

Finally, despite the ADA allowing employers to work directly with health care providers (with the employee’s consent, of course) during the accommodation process, many employers are still stumped on how to best accommodate employees with psychiatric disabilities. In those instances, the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a service of the U.S. Department of Labor, can be a great tool. JAN provides free expert guidance to help employers understand behaviors stemming from a mental illness and identify workplace accommodations.

In sum, as more and more celebrities like Mariah Carey talk about their own mental health challenges, employees will undoubtedly become more comfortable with making similar disclosures in the workplace and taking steps to enforce their ADA rights. Notably, EEOC charge statistics over the last ten years support this trend.  In 2017, the EEOC received 6,546 new discrimination charges related to anxiety disorders, depression, manic depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, and other psychological disorders. This represents a 44% percent spike in mental-health-condition-based charges since 2007. Fortunately, there are a lot of resources out there to help managers and human resource professionals navigate the at times complex mandates of the ADA while being sensitive to the plights of their employees.