By Sam DeWitt

In 2014 I was hospitalized for Major Depression and Anxiety after a mental breakdown. I was in the hospital for less than two weeks and went back to work immediately. I relapsed, went home with my family, and took a two-month leave from work. In 2016 I was sexually assaulted after one year without a depressive episode. I relapsed after the trauma and was back on my therapy/medication routine, but I eventually “broke” again. I had to go back on leave, but with a different employer. This time, my diagnosis was PTSD, Major Depression, Anxiety, and ADD (a new diagnosis). Not only am I familiar with living with mental illness, but I’m also a Human Resources (HR) professional who is now pretty familiar with the steps of going on medical leave. I wanted to give you advice and steps to take in the event you need to go on leave for your mental illness.

(Disclaimer: I am not a professional that specializes in advising people on taking medical leave. I am only giving advice based on my own experiences. Seek further assistance from your doctor or your Human Resources department should you consider short-term disability for your mental illness)

1. Admit you need it!
This may be the hardest part of the process. We tend to feel guilty about idea of up and leaving our team in dismay for something that you’re probably thinking will “work itself out” one day, but if you know that you’re honestly sick and that it’s affecting your work performance, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about the option of going on Short Term Disability.

Also, consider that maybe medical leave isn’t the route for you. Maybe you only need to work from home for a while, or just need to work part-time for a few months. Part-Time disability is also a thing! HR will still need a Doctor note for any of these options. Just be honest with yourself and your Doctor on how sick you are and what you need. Sometimes, going on leave can be detrimental if it’s not the best option.

2. Don’t feel guilty.
This is advice that I need to take myself, but if you feel guilty it’s only natural. Going out on medical leave for mental illness is always sudden. You can’t prepare your team for your leave like you could if you were going out for surgery. At the end of the day, we can’t take care of our team (or our jobs) unless we take care of ourselves first.

3. See what your employer covers.
If you’re working full-time there’s a good chance your employer offers short-term disability with a certain carrier. This carrier is the one who would be paying you while you’re on leave. The downside is that they probably won’t pay your full income. Some cover only 60%, and some may go up to 80%. Figure out how much of your pay you’d receive and how long you need to be employed to take advantage of this benefit. Also, see if they offer a benefit that could help you pay bills while on disability like Aflac.

4. Talk to Human Resources…. And your boss.
It can be scary to open up about your illness at work, but this step is needed in order to go on leave. When you talk to HR, get the short term disability paperwork from them that needs to be filled out by your doctor. Your employer (HR) will need to fill out a portion, as will you. Get everything you can complete before giving it to your doctor. If you don’t wish to tell HR your whole business, that’s your choice, but they will see your disability paperwork if it’s processed. HR also has access to other resources you may need while out on leave such as counseling, group therapy, support groups, etc. They may also have programs internally to help employees deal with mental illness.

You don’t have to tell your boss about what’s going on fully, but you should maybe try to give him/her an idea of being sick and potentially needing time off. You don’t want to blindside them if you’re approved for disability and are suddenly out for a couple months. Depending on your relationship with your boss will depend on your comfort level of disclosure. Keep in mind that it’s not your boss’s business to know what’s going on in your personal life, whatever you decide.

5. “I got bills, they’re multiplying…”
Since you’re probably only earning a fraction of your take-home pay, paying bills may be a challenge. Don’t worry! A lot of places have benefits for this kind of thing. Here are some benefits I was able to take advantage of:

  • Credit Card: Discover offers a benefit for folks on disability that takes away late fees and minimum payments while on leave. They will, however, cut your spending limit in half and need to verify with your doctor that you’re actually on leave.
  • Student Loans: I was able to suspend payments while on leave. If I don’t put anything towards it though, my monthly payments go up once I’m back to work.
  • Other Loans: I was able to get a 15 day grace period from my payment due date. No late fees are applied until after the 15th

Having some flexibility with certain carriers does help! Just be wise about your spending and keep track of your bills. If it’s too overwhelming, ask a friend or family member help you keep track of everything for you.

6. Take care of yourself.
Now that you have the time off and you figured out everything financially. RELAX. Continue therapy and seeing your doctor. Try to stay busy, eat healthily, and maintain a healthy sleep schedule. Treat this leave as you would if you were on leave for a physical ailment. Listen to your body and take care of it!


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