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Mental Health and Civil Rights

People with mental illnesses are often stigmatized and sometimes shunned by their communities. They sometimes face discrimination at work, in housing, or in public services, all of which may present obstacles to their recovery and may violate their civil rights.

Mental health conditions that pose challenges for Minnesotans include alcohol or chemical dependency, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as developmental disabilities and mental retardation.

Persons with mental disabilities are protected under both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Minnesota Human Rights Act. For example, an employer with 15 or more employees must make a "reasonable accommodation" for a person with a mental disability. A "reasonable accommodation" may include adjusting working conditions or allowing an employee time off for treatment or recovery.

Any harassment of an employee with a psychiatric disability by other workers or supervisors must be promptly addressed by the employer. The fears of coworkers are not a justification for discrimination -- a person cannot be discriminated against simply because a coworker is afraid of, or uncomfortable with, that person's disability. State and federal civil rights laws also apply to public services and public accommodations.

Defining who is "disabled" under these laws is complex and sometimes requires a court to decide. The ADA recognizes as "disabled" a person who has physical or mental impairments that have "substantially limited" their "major life activity." However, the ADA definition of disabled might not apply if the person's impairment can be corrected through medication. State law is slightly different. The Minnesota Human Rights Act states that a person's life need only be "materially" limited, rather than "substantially" limited.

Many people with mental health conditions argue that current federal law is discriminatory because it does not require health insurance to cover mental illnesses in the same way that insurance covers other types of illnesses. Congress is currently working on "mental health parity" legislation that would broaden the range and degree of mental health services that are covered by health insurance. Mental health parity has widespread public support and was endorsed by President Bush in April.

Fortunately, society is becoming more pro-active in accepting and understanding mental health conditions. For example, many police officers and other law enforcement personnel now receive special training to recognize and appropriately interact with persons with mental illnesses, and to ensure that their civil rights are protected.

Children in public schools also fall under the protection of the ADA and the state Human Rights Act. Children and adolescents often cope with grief, depression, anxiety disorder, attention deficit disorder, inability to control anger, and fear of exposure to violence or bullying. Public schools are required to make reasonable accommodations for children with mental health disabilities, just as employers and public agencies are.

Several groups in Morris provide support for people with mental health conditions and their families. These include the Minnesota Depressive-Manic Depressive Association support group, the Behavioral Medicine Department at Stevens Community Medical Center, Prairie Counseling Center, Prairie Community Services, and the Stevens County Local Advisory Council on mental health issues. Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, Stevens County Human Services, and various chemical dependency groups can also offer assistance. Questions about mental illness and discrimination may be directed to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights at 800-657-3704.

The Morris Human Rights Commission was established by the Morris City Council in 1997 to promote and encourage equal opportunity and fair treatment of all individuals. The Commission fosters those values that create an inclusive community that appreciates diversity and protects the rights of all people. The Commission holds regular monthly meetings that are open to the public. For more information, contact the Morris City Hall.

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