In decades past, little was understood about mental health issues and these concerns certainly didn’t qualify a worker to take time off of work and receive adequate compensation. Today, however, more is known about the complex nature of mental health issues and their connection to physical health concerns. Employees may be able to include mental health treatment and lost time due to mental health issues as part of their workers’ compensation claim.
Psychological Injuries are covered by Workers Compensation
Georgia workers compensation law provides coverage for medical problems which arise AFTER the original work injury. This is referred to as a “superadded injury,” and has been explained by the Georgia Courts as follows: ‘when an employee sustains an accepted work injury, and then sustains a subsequent injury as a direct and natural result of the original job injury, then the subsequent injury is also compensable.’
This doctrine is most often used to extend workers compensation coverage for physical injuries. For example, an employee with a back injury may later fall as a result of his back problems, causing an injury to his hand or wrist. An employee with an injured knee may walk differently to compensate for the original injury, causing pain in the other knee. This same doctrine also provides coverage if an employee undergoes medical treatment and has new physical problems as a result of that medical treatment – for example, a bad drug reaction or complications due to surgery.
Psychological injuries can be covered in the same way. Many injured workers experience depression and anxiety as a result of their injuries. It is very stressful to sit at home, day after day, waiting on medical treatment that is slow in coming. It is depressing when an injury forces a person for help with basic household tasks. It is depressing when an injured parent has to ask for help in taking care of their own children because they can’t do it themselves. The ongoing stresses associated with a prolonged injury can magnify normal concerns into a psychologist issue.
The Requirement of Physical Injury
Some jurisdictions allow employees to recover for purely psychological injuries caused solely by psychological stressors, but Georgia does not. The Georgia Courts have held that an employee can recover for a psychological injury ONLY IF the psychological condition arises from a physical injury. The physical injury need not be totally debilitating, but it must be more than a touch or minor scrape. In the most recent decisions, the Georgia Court of Appeals held that the psychological injury must arise from an accident in which the employee sustained a physical injury, AND that the physical trauma must “contribute to the continuation of the psychological trauma.” In other words, there must be a physical injury AND there must be a causal connection between the physical injury and the psychological condition.
What if an Employee has been treated for Psychological issues in the past?
The Georgia workers compensation act defines “injury” to include the aggravation of a pre-existing condition. This means that an employee who has had a prior back injury is covered by workers comp even though he may have had back problems in the past. This same rule will apply to psychological injuries, but may be more challenging to prove as a practical matter.
To have a psychological issue covered as part of the workers compensation claim, it will be necessary to prove that the physical injury actually contributed to the condition. Records connected with prior psychological treatment will be scrutinized by the insurance company. If there is a considerable gap in time between the prior treatment and the current condition, then the psychological condition is more likely to be accepted as part of the work injury. Likewise, if the injured employee begins experiencing new symptoms, or if the employee requires a different treatment than that provided in the past, then the psychological condition is more likely to be accepted as part of the work injury.
Several years ago the Georgia Court of Appeals attempted to make a distinction between types of psychological injuries which could be covered, ruling that ‘major depressive disorder’ was a psychological condition which could be covered under the workers compensation act, while ‘mild depression or anxiety’ could not. More recently the Court of Appeals backed away from that distinction, leaving open the possibility that mild depression, anxiety, and other psychological issues can be covered. Despite the best efforts of the legislature and the Courts to craft precise rules, these issues are ultimately decided on a case-by-case basis.
What to Do when your Job Injury has Impacted your Mental Health?
If you feel stress, anxiety, depression or another mental health issue as part of your work injury, then you need to report those symptoms to your treating physician. It will be important that the doctor document you complaints of depression, anxiety, or feelings of worthlessness that often accompany a serious physical injury. Unless your doctor treats these types of conditions, you should ask your workers comp doctor to refer you to a specialist for this type of treatment. Lastly, you should not be surprised if the workers comp adjuster refuses to pay for this type of treatment, even when it should be covered.
If you have any psychological issues associated with a workplace injury, you will want to work with an experienced attorney who specializes in workers’ compensation law. Your attorney can help you compile a case that proves your mental health issues are associated with your work injury and that you deserve treatment and disability payments as a result.
Working with a qualified attorney while filing your workers’ compensation claim can help you understand the workers’ compensation laws in Georgia and also maximize the amount of compensation that you receive during your time off from work. Workers’ compensation programs are available so that workers can recover after suffering from an injury or illness that occurs as a result of working conditions. It’s important for both employees and employers to recognize the mental health concerns should qualify for workers’ compensation benefits, as mental health is connected in many ways to physical health.
To find out more about mental health issues and the Georgia workers’ compensation laws, contact our law firm today in order to schedule a consultation with one of our experienced attorneys.