Knowing Your Rights as Someone With a Mental Illness
Author’s Note: I am an established attorney based in Houston, Texas and the owner of Abogado Aly, PLLC law office. This article in no way offers legal advice but rather is an informative opinion piece. These ideas belong to me and do not in any way represent the law firm.
The story below is a real life story in which names were changed for protection purposes:
Maggie wakes up every morning at approximately 6:00 a.m. in order to stick to her daily routine of commuting to her full-time job. For Maggie, some mornings are harder than others to get out of bed. Between the lack of motivation and comforting solitude of her bedroom, she’s faced with stress and anxiety to live a “normal” life. But it wasn’t always this way. No one knows this, but Maggie became a crime victim in 2011 when the case of her abusive stepfather was taken to the authorities. As if being forced to move out of her home, away from her mother and “reassigned” legal guardians which she would live with until she turned 18 years old wasn’t terrifying enough, she had to share her story with attorneys under surveillance and re-tell the moments that haunt her every night.
After Maggie’s case made it through the court system, her stepfather was sentenced and she went on to live with her new legal guardians for the rest of her adolescence. No one would dare to speak about the intense, life-altering circumstances Maggie had to endure. Rather, the entire situation was simply “brushed under the rug,” with only six counseling sessions and zero follow-up to her life beyond that one day in court. All thoughts, feelings and emotions were bottled up.
During this time, no one mentioned to Maggie that in her state, she was only eligible for counseling with crime victims compensation up to two years after the first report of the crime. In that two years, the court system alone took nearly six months. Leaving Maggie with a year and a half to receive professional help for her mental health, Maggie wasn’t ready in that time. Almost nine years later, Maggie still lives on the emotional roller coaster of mental health, battling anxiety on a daily basis.
Publically we have expectations of others to maintain their mental health. But is there a standard level of stability? It’s all too often that we throw a sense of shame on those attempting to cope with mental health and the suffocation of their often silent pain. As a society, when we think about general health and what it means to live a healthy lifestyle, we’re drawn to the physical aspects of eating habits and fitness routines — but we undermine the mentality of human emotions, rationality, decisions and balance in our minds. Mental health plays a much larger role in general health than many realize.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one cause of anxiety disorders is a person’s environment. The experience of extreme stress or trauma can cause anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety, panic disorder and phobias. These mental disorders affect individuals’ daily lives, employment opportunities and social interactions. An unfortunate truth in today’s society is that we regularly fail to recognize anxiety disorders among those around us.
On the topic of mental health and the justice system, facts are often clouded with misconceptions and opinions. Most mental health rights and laws are covered on a state by state basis — meaning each state has its own regulations to protect the rights of individuals with mental illness and disorders. The cost, coverage and availability of mental health services fully depend on state legislation.
In a TEDx talk, Thomas Insel gives us an incredible comparison between the health issues of disease (leukemia, heart disease, AIDS, and stroke) and suicide. Out of all suicides accounted in the United States, 90 percent manifest from a mental illness. Suicide is not the only thing mental health disorders contribute to. In this talk, Insel projects a new way to view mental illness — not a weakness, but a type of disease that should be treated with respect just as other diseases have.
Research on mental disorders has come along way over years in recent studies. From learning about the brain to human rights, individuals with mental health disabilities should know and understand just how far we’ve come. While we still have a ways to go for complete acceptance and aid, here’s what we can celebrate.
Legally, people with mental illness are protected from discrimination. Just as an employer or university can’t discriminate against race, they also can’t discriminate against mental illness. This legal protection refers to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Beyond discrimination protection, the ADA requires employers and to provide accommodations and accessibility to ensure equal opportunity. This federal civil rights law was a major win for those with mental health disorders.
Additionally, the Fair Housing Amendments Act protects individuals with certain conditions and disabilities from discriminating landlords. There are also other acts and laws to ensure individuals with mental illness to are treated fairly with respect, privacy and equal opportunity.
Mental health rights under the ADA are legal protection to people with mental health disorders — even like Maggie. Mental illness whether it be anxiety, depression, schizophrenia or any other disorder can be debilitating in everyday life. While mental disorders are a considerably large burden to bare, people like Maggie have the ADA and other legal protection on their side.
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