Paid Medical Leave Needs to Cover Mental Health, Too


I’m a disability advocate and a grassroots activist for paid family and medical leave in Washington, DC. Considering how misunderstood and stigmatized mental health struggles are in our society, it’s no surprise people in crisis often face huge obstacles in receiving support, especially since mental health issues are often seen as weaknesses to overcome. In my work for good paid leave policies, I’m learning how these struggles are compounded when people can’t stay employed or meet their basic needs during a personal or family crisis.

I’m disappointed the current proposal for our local DC Universal Paid Leave program does not cover medical leave for mental health. I believe everyone across the country should have access to paid family and medical leave — and here are four reasons why paid leave programs need to cover people who need to take time away from work to address their mental health:

1. More people have a mental health issue than you probably think.

Mental illness is often an invisible disability, which means many of us are not aware of how common it is. The reality is that nearly one in four people in the U.S. experience mental illness. While someone may not “look like” or “act like” they are in crisis, tens of thousands of people in Washington DC alone experience depression, anxiety, addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia and other conditions, which require time away from work to heal. By excluding mental illness from paid leave coverage, the bill currently before the DC Council leaves out huge number of people who have legitimate medical issues and desperately need financial stability while they recover.

2. Covering mental health leave helps decrease stigma and offers a financial lifeline to people who are struggling.

Though mental health issues are common, people who experience them are shunned as “crazy,” weak or out of control. This leads many people who are struggling to not seek help, especially if they are worried about losing their job or slipping into financial ruin if they seek treatment, ask for leave or check themselves into a hospital. We need to make sure people with real health needs get decent care, time to recover, financial stability and ideally, a job to return to.

3. Mental health leave is a win-win for employers as well as employees.

Someone in crisis is not likely to be doing a great job at work. As an employer or co-worker, why would you want that person coming in to work? Untreated mental issues cost employers more than $80 billion dollars per year. Someone who takes paid medical leave will return a much more centered, productive employee, lowering the employer’s hiring and training costs to replace that worker had they left the job. This is just one of the many examples of how strong paid leave programs improve worker retention, productivity and morale. Bonus: Because DC’s proposed city-wide paid leave program will pay the employee’s leave wages, employers will have more money in their budget to decide how to cover their staffing needs.

4. Physical and mental health are intertwined.

Physical and mental wellness are very much interrelated. For example, someone who is in an accident might sustain only minor physical injuries, which heal quickly, but then develop severe post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety. A new parent could feel lucky to have an uncomplicated birth and good support caring for their newborn, but develop a postpartum mood disorder, which occurs in approximately 10 to 15 percent of individuals who give birth.

Let’s make sure our program meets these real needs by taking mental health seriously and ensuring the bill benefits all the people who need it. If you’re interested, be sure to follow campaign updates closely to find out what you can do to support our efforts to pass a strong paid family and medical leave program in DC. I hope jurisdictions across the U.S. will follow quickly!

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