Depression and Discrimination: Where There’s One, the Other Often Follows

Man watching female coworkerDepression makes it difficult to function in daily life, but adding discrimination to the equation makes it even more troublesome.

A new study in the journal The Lancet stated that out of the 1,082 adult participants with major depressive disorder, 79% reported that they have experienced discrimination. People who experienced discrimination while depressed had more depressive episodes, social difficulties, and issues finding and keeping a job. They also were less likely to reveal a diagnosis of depression.

These results suggest that more works needs to be done in the area of preventing discrimination and eliminating stigma. Discrimination can prevent people with depression, who may be worried about disclosing their diagnosis, from getting the help they need. While getting a job and growing social networks can help fight depression symptoms, those pursuits become more challenging in the face of discrimination.

How, specifically, does discrimination affect people with depression? How can the general public be more understanding? And what options do people with depression have? Mental health experts and other professionals have some answers.

Dr. David Sack, CEO of Elements Behavioral Health and Promises Treatment Centers, said by email that sensitivity toward people with depression often is lacking.

“The most common example has to do with intolerance toward peers/friends/relatives that comes from not understanding that depression is a disease that the individual cannot simply will themselves out of,” he said.

Sack said a supervisor might question an employee’s motivation and commitment due to symptoms of depression, even if those symptoms don’t reflect how the employee really is.

“How often have we heard that this or that person claims that they are depressed just so they can get time off from work or won’t have to take responsibility for mistakes they’ve made?” Sack said.

Although many people know the basics of depression thanks to widespread awareness initiatives, prejudice, bias, and stigma still are rampant.

Viola Drancoli, a clinical psychologist, said in an email that friends and family members of people with depression might exhibit discriminatory behavior with them because they may feel drained from being around someone who expresses sadness, pessimism, irritability, and a lack of motivation.

This could push someone with depression into isolation. A person with depression might prefer being alone so he or she doesn’t have to attempt to hide feelings from others.

“The social isolation often starts a vicious cycle in which the (client’s) negative outlook on life is reaffirmed, they feel let down by family and friends, and symptoms may worsen,” Drancoli said. “This is especially dangerous for individuals who have suicidal ideations and need support and monitoring.”

Drancoli said it’s important for family and friends to be supportive. She suggests volunteering to help out with chores that might be difficult for someone with depression to complete when he or she is struggling to function, as well as patiently listening without judgment. Loved ones can gently encourage a person with depression to exercise as well, as this has been shown to boost mood.

People with depression who believe they have been discriminated against have the law on their side. Sack said that discrimination against people with any disabilities, including mental issues such as depression, is forbidden by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The civil rights law, enacted in 1990, defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.” Some states have additional laws against discriminatory behavior.

“An individual who is concerned about discrimination at work will want to speak with their supervisor or the director of human resources first,” Sack said. “Most companies have strong policies to promote fairness and nondiscrimination.”

Justine Lisser, a senior attorney advisor in the Office of Communications & Legislative Affairs at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said by email that if an employer has at least 15 employees, it must abide by the ADA. Employers need to provide “reasonable accommodations” for people with disabilities, as long as the employer isn’t deeply burdened as a result.

“For example, if a person with depression is hired for a position that requires an 8 a.m. start time, but due to the effects of (antidepressant) medication the person could not start until 10 a.m., it would be a reasonable accommodation to permit the employee with depression to start at 10 a.m., assuming that it would not cause an undue hardship for the employer,” Lisser said.

The EEOC has successfully enforced employee discrimination laws in a few cases involving people with mental health issues. In one case, a sales associate at a video retailer experienced harassment because of his social anxiety disorder and depression. His employer was ordered to pay $70,000 to settle the discrimination suit, according to an EEOC press release from March 2012.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Sissy

    October 30th, 2012 at 1:34 PM

    I hate it that someone who thinks that they have been treated unfairly then has to experience the double whammy of becoming depressed too.

    I feel like once you have felt that discrimination, it is natural that you may retreat within yourself and become depressed and anxious. But it’s not the healthy thing to do. Hopefully if you are feeling this then you will find someone to talk to who can help you not only process these feelings but help you overcome them too.

  • layla dean

    October 30th, 2012 at 3:24 PM

    I was made into a victim all my life in that I was picked on by other people and maybe you would call it discrimination because my family was poor when I was growing up. I don’t think that I was given the same opportunities as the rich kids were or that I was given the benefit of the doubt in the way that most of them were. But I did not let that get me down. As a matter of fact it motivated me to show those that I felt were holding me back that I could be what I wanted to be no matter how they chose to treat me. I am not saying that there were not times when it hurt and when I wanted to bury my head and cry, but the point is that I didn’t do that. I kept going forward, and now I think that some of those people who held my upbringing against me them are looking at me now marveling that I have been able to make a success out of life and that makes me pretty proud.

  • Dominic

    October 31st, 2012 at 12:28 AM

    When someone’s got a problem the worst you can do is to say it isn’t true or to treat them as someone abnormal. They didn’t wish for the problem or go get it they just happened to be affected. That does not warrant bias against them in any way

  • Brandon

    October 31st, 2012 at 4:21 AM

    very relevant for so many people who are having to live with this duality

    many don’t know which issue to attack forst or which is causing more damage

    find that many times the depression comes on long after the discrimination has come and gone

  • Alex

    October 31st, 2012 at 5:01 AM

    Its never a good idea to discriminate against or treat someone that way because not only are you offending the person right then but the consequences can stay for a long time. Discrimination can definitely bring in depression for the victim. Alas, if only it were in the perpetrator, we would have no discrimination!

  • harriet b

    October 31st, 2012 at 2:48 PM

    discrimination can bring in depression? I agree.the opposite is true?I dont think so.I’m the kind of person who even hates to see someone else being discriminated if I were to be discriminated against I would be pretty depressed.It is something that harms a person mentally and yet people do all of this just for a few seconds of laughter. Just not done

  • Vincent

    November 1st, 2012 at 12:24 AM

    I was depressed due to so many different things that happened in my family.Then I decided to finally take up a job to not just earn but also to try and get away from the depression.But the subtle yet constant discrimination I faced there just made it even worse. I quit the job and am now struggling financially and have this depression that refuses to let go of me. I am confused and do not want to fall back on drugs. Is there anything out there that can help me at all?

  • Randy

    October 21st, 2016 at 9:26 AM

    My wife who suffers with depression just had a job posting at her withdrew from her because the department she is in blackballed her and put her on step 2 discipline because of her absenteeism. Normally she is there with little time off but she is in between trying new meds(that aren’t working well). I have told her to contact her Union person and grieve it. Any ideas comments knowledge is much welcome.

  • no

    October 6th, 2019 at 5:53 PM

    Depression is not a ‘disease’. This article itself perpetuate discrimination against people who are sad, by pretending they have no reason to be sad except that there is something wrong with their brain.

  • Geira Hansen

    January 19th, 2020 at 8:08 PM

    Sorry to burst your bubble, but the kind of depression that’s being discussed here isn’t just being “sad”. It’s caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain that affects not only mood but also manifests with many physical problems as well. Do some research before you make judgements so you can make more informed statements. People with your mindset who think they know all about depression are exactly the people who discriminate against people with this condition.

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