Bipolar Barista: Check “Yes” for Disability

Bipolar? Depression? OCD? PTSD? Check the box to let Starbucks know! That’s right. Starbucks wants to know if potential and current employees have mental disorders that qualify as disabilities.

The Voluntary Self-Identification of Disability form included in the on­line application to become an employ­ee of Starbucks, lists several mental disorders as disabilities, including bi­polar disorder, depression, schizophre­nia, OCD, and PTSD.

The form presents these options as a requirement based on the Social Se­curity administration’s decision to recognize some mental disorders as disabilities for SSI disability purposes. While I think it is a step forward that the government is recognizing the of­ten debilitating effects of mental dis­orders like bipolar and others on an individual, I wonder what this move by Starbucks and potential other em­ployers will do to further exacerbate the stigmatism of mental health in the United States.

As a woman deeply affected by my mother’s struggle with bipolar disorder and my own struggles with major de­pression and anxiety, I can attest to the fact that there remains a very real stigma associated with mental health issues.

Characterizing a mental disorder as a disability for Social Security pur­poses seems like a good move for suf­ferers. Individuals now have the abil­ity to prove that their disorder inhibits everyday life and that monetary com­pensation is necessary to help during problematic episodes. However, label­ing a mental disorder as a disability labels all sufferers of that disorder as disabled.

I have been through three major depressive episodes in my adult life. Each was difficult and crippling for a variety of reasons. However, I am now a fully capable and successful adult. Yet, if I were being completely honest, I would have to click the yes box on Starbucks’ “Voluntary Self-Identifica­tion of Disability” form. Am I disabled? Should Starbucks be seeking this in­formation?

While Starbucks states on their form, “Federal Law requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation to qualified individuals with disabili­ties,” I have to wonder what kind of accommodation could possibly be of­fered to a barista with major depression or bipolar disorder. Would a depressed manager be given extra time off during depressive episodes? I doubt it. Would a bipolar barista receive extra breaks throughout her shift when the pressure of a large crowd creates hallucinations and anxiety? I doubt it.

In listing these disorders as dis­abilities, Starbucks is able to claim they have hired a “disabled” person. Yet, what they plan to do to accommodate that disability is unclear. Starbucks reaps a tangible reward when employ­ees check that box. Yet, the employee is opening herself up to potential dis­crimination and stigmatism. Although Starbucks states on the form discrim­ination and punishment will not occur, there simply is no sure fire way to be positive that Starbucks management is not unintentionally creating a dis­criminating and stigmatizing policy.

Although there are clearly situa­tions in which a mental disorder can be disabling, I would not consider my­self or many people I know with men­tal disorders disabled as this implies an inherent difficulty to perform daily tasks to the level of “normal” people. Rather, I would say that those with mental disorders (myself included) share uniqueness in the way their brains interact with the outside world. Far from disabling, I recognize that in many of my “disordered” moments, I produce the most creative and original art, writing, and mathematical bril­liance. I see major depression and anxiety as an integral part of who I am and how I arrived at this incredible self.

So Starbucks, stop stigmatizing all people with mental disorders by calling them disabled and urging them to re­port their “disability” just so that cor­porate can present the government with grandiose numbers of people gainfully employed by the big green beast. Instead, recognize that while the government needs to classify some mental disorders as disabilities to truly help those who need it, a mega-coffee chain does not need to stigmatize its potential and current employees by asking them to check yes for disabled.

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY MOLLY REETZ