There has been much documented about dealing with mental health (and avoiding mental health discrimination) in the workplace. The 2017 Mental Health at Work Report revealed that despite improvements, a lot of work still needs to be done, in particular to:

(1) encourage employees to talk about mental health issues with their employer; and

(2) improve the mental health training of managers.

Although clearly improvements in dealing with mental health in the workplace will provide more protection to employees who have mental health issues, this article investigates whether or not the law could do more to provide protection to employees who suffer from mental illnesses.

As it stands an individual isn’t protected by the law for ‘substance abuse’, even if the substance abuse is a manifestation of a mental illness. Discrimination law does not protect the employee who is addicted to anti-depressants for example, or self-medicating with alcohol. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has said:

mental illness may lead someone to abuse substances. They may want to block out their symptoms or the side-effects of medication. They may have difficulties in sleeping, feel lonely or simply wish to boost their self-confidence”.

The charity Rethink, says:

“Some people use them to try and deal with their symptoms. This is called self-medication”.

Perhaps the law should intervene and provide protection to those who turn to substance abuse to deal with a mental illness that is legally recognised as a disability. A possible intervention could be to give these individuals access to the ‘discrimination arising from disability’ claim. This could force employers to ‘deal’ with the mental illness, rather than dismiss (on the grounds of gross misconduct) or sanction an employee as a consequence of the substance abuse, that arose from the mental illness.

Even if the above ‘possible’ intervention doesn’t suit, one could argue that the law should better recognise mental health discrimination in light of the clear correlation between mental illness and substance abuse, so as to protect those with legally-recognised mental disabilities abusing substances.

By Zahid Reza

Image used under CC courtesy of KellyB.