Subscribe To Us

Follow Us on Facebook

HR Handled Right

Purchase Dr Joni Johnston's eBook "HR Handled Right: Dealing with Dress Code Nightmares without Getting Sued" for only


On May 23, 2003, John Ponsi, a teacher at Cliffside Park High School, was unexpectedly called into the principal’s office for a meeting with two students, who accused him of making racial and lewd remarks earlier that week. Another teacher at the same meeting accused Ponsi of pushing her. Four days later, the Board of Education notified Ponsi that he was suspended with pay, pending the outcome of an investigation and psychological examination.

However, no investigation was conducted. Ponsi was referred to a psychiatrist by his physician due to the depression and anxiety resulting from the accusations and suspension. In September 2003, Ponsi was also evaluated by Dr. Meyerhoff, a psychiatrist appointed by the school board, who concluded that Ponsi was unable to teach for the foreseeable future. As a result of that examination, the Board notified Ponsi that he was ineligible to teach until he provided proof of recovery and that, if his absence exceeded two years, his employment would be terminated.

On January 31, 2005, Ponsi’s psychiatrist notified the school in writing that he was ready and able to return to teaching. Not convinced, the Board sent Ponsi back to Dr. Meyerhoff, their psychiatrist, who concluded that, while his mood disorder had abated, he was unfit to return to work because he showed no repentance or remorse over the alleged lewd and racial remarks, or the pushing incident. In essence, the Board’s psychiatrist accepted all the allegations against Mr. Ponsi as true (even though no investigation had been conducted) and, in fact, interpreted Mr. Ponsi’s assertion to the contrary as evidence of paranoid delusions. Concerned, the Board decided not to reinstate Mr. Ponsi.

Why Should I Believe You if You’re “Crazy?”

The true story cited above illustrates one of the challenges (and potential pitfalls) employers face when investigating psychiatric disability discrimination claims. All too often, the stigma of a mental illness clouds how that person is perceived, not only by managers who don’t understand psychiatric disorders but professionals who should know better. In other words, the complaint process itself becomes tainted by the underlying assumption that the complainant, because of his or her mental state, isn’t able to see reality clearly and is thus distorting what happened or misinterpreting the evidence.

Just Go See the Shrink and Get Yourself Straightened Out

Employers can also fall prey to the assumption that a trip to the psychiatrist’s office is all that is needed to get the complainant to see the light. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with offering up an employer’s EAP to a complainant who is dealing with the inevitable stress that filing a complaint generates. The devil, however, is in the details. Employers need to be clear that their recommendations or suggestions about psychiatric treatment aren’t interpreted as a thinly disguised version of blame-the-potential-victim.

They also need to be sure that the questions they ask in their investigation don’t cross the line into sensitive medical information or stray into unwarranted territory. Asking coworkers if they’ve ever felt that Bipolar Employee X was dangerous is understandable if you’re investigating alleged threats made by this employees; it’s completely inappropriate if you’re investigating complaints of cruel comments or teasing made to this employee.

The Bottom Line

Investigating psychiatric disability harassment or discrimination claims can be especially challenging, although not necessarily for the reason many of us assume they would be. Yes, some employees with psychiatric disabilities can be difficult complainants, but so can employees without a mental illness. In fact, in my experience, it’s the stigma and fear surrounding mental illness that gets in the way of a fair and objective investigation much more often than an irrational or “crazy” complainant.

However, employers must make sure that we are basing our employment decisions on the facts rather than beliefs and opinions, even when those beliefs and/or opinions come from mental health professionals. Employers who substitute professional opinions for investigations do so at their own peril. When you do need professional input, make sure you provide them with accurate and objective information is being provided.

One Response to The Psychology Behind Psychiatric Disability Discrimination Complaints

  • There are two state hospitals in Finland dedicated primarily to the care of offenders with mental illness (although they also admit other patients who cannot be treated anywhere else): Vanha Vaasa Hospital, Vaasa and Niuvanniemi Hospital, Kuopio. The former has 147 beds, the latter 296. The average length of treatment for the discharged criminal patient is 5 years ( Niuvanniemi Hospital, 2005 ). The decision of where the treatment of the offender with mental illness initially takes place lies with the National Authority of Medicolegal Affairs. Most patients in these two hospitals have schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder (82%); other diagnoses include other psychoses (10%) and bipolar disorder (2%) (information from Vanha Vaasa Hospital website; PÄÄDIAGNOOSIT). After 6 months in a forensic hospital, local psychiatric services can take patients back into their care if this is regarded as safe, which is rarely the case in practice. Patients are rehabilitated gradually through less secure wards and rehabilitation units (which may include local psychiatric services), before being reintegrated into the community. After discharge from in-patient treatment, patients are supervised for 6 months during which they are regularly seen by a psychiatrist. If necessary, this period can be extended and the patient can also be recalled to hospital. Final discharge from supervision is decided by the National Authority of Medicolegal Affairs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *