AmeriCorps Is Discriminating Against Survivors. They’re Not The Only Ones.

With a 4.0 GPA and two successful semesters with a state affiliate under her belt, Susie Balcom was a standout applicant for a job at AmeriCorps. It’s no surprise she received multiple offers from AmeriCorps programs.

But in June, after requiring Balcom to submit an intrusive “health information form” — which asks for all kinds of personal information about applicants’ doctor’s visits, medications, and mental health history — AmeriCorps abruptly revoked her job offer. The reason? Balcom disclosed that she sought mental health care after a sexual assault.

Turns out AmeriCorps has a blanket policy of revoking job offers to anyone who recently started therapy for anxiety, meaning that survivors like Balcom, and anyone else who seeks help for anxiety, can lose their job.

AmeriCorps isn’t the only organization with a policy like this. To be an attorney, for instance, most state bar associations ask candidates intrusive questions about their mental health. Medical students face the same. According to a 2008 study, about 90 percent of state medical boards have licensing forms with questions about an applicant’s mental health.

Having a mental illness shouldn’t disqualify someone from a job. We live in a country where one in five women report experiencing rape or attempted rape and one in six report being stalked. As #MeToo is demonstrating this week, gender-based harassment and violence affects virtually every woman on the planet. Discriminating against survivors of gender-based violence is gender-based discrimination. It’s illegal for an employer to force you out of work solely because you have anxiety or solely because you’ve experienced sexual assault.

But it’s not just illegal. It’s also wrong. By taking her job away, AmeriCorps implied that experiencing sexual assault, or having a mental health condition, makes people incapable of serving their community. That couldn’t be further from the truth. For some survivors, coping with trauma is a full-time job (and that’s okay!). But as Alexandra has written here, the stereotype that a past experience of violence ruins a survivor for life is an incredibly destructive one. We can acknowledge the violence of sexual assault while also recognizing that survivors are still full people capable of all kinds of workplace and academic success.

Ironically, those very stereotypes do rob survivors and disabled people of their career goals and economic security. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as people without disabilities. 

Plus, by discriminating against survivors, organizations like AmeriCorps are making it harder for sexual violence victims to move on with their lives and recover — and deter people with disabilities from getting treatment. In any given year, nearly one in five American adults will experience a mental health condition, but many won’t get treatment. The World Health Organization estimates that the non-treatment rate for anxiety is 57%. The WHO also estimates it’s 59% for OCD and 56% for major depression, and admits that these figures may be a conservative underestimate.

That’s partly because people fear the stigma and discrimination they could face for having a mental health condition. What happens if you lose your job, and your ability to pay rent, because your employer finds out you’ve been diagnosed with depression? When companies like AmeriCorps discriminate against survivors, and everyone else who needs mental health care, they force employees to make an impossible choice between their livelihoods and their health.  

Here’s the good news — things are slowly changing. In 2014, the Department of Justice stated that the bar association’s intrusive, discriminatory mental health screenings violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. Their judgement isn’t binding on state associations, but it’s proof that the tide is shifting. If employers discriminate against people with mental health conditions, they may find themselves in court.

Likewise, the ACLU is suing AmeriCorps to get justice for Balcom and end the organization’s discriminatory mental health screenings. If you’re an AmeriCorps applicant who was similarly discriminated against, you can share your story here.

Image credit: The Guardian.

Sejal Singh is a columnist at Feministing, where she writes about educational equity, labor, and reproductive justice. Sejal is a Policy and Advocacy Coordinator for Know Your IX, a national campaign to end gender-based violence in schools, where she has led several state and federal campaigns for student survivors' civil rights. In the past, Sejal led LGBT rights campaigns for the Center for American Progress. Today, she is a student at Harvard Law School and a frequent speaker on LGBTQ rights and civil rights in schools.

Sejal Singh is a law student and columnist at Feministing, writing about educational equity, labor, and reproductive justice.

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