Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Breakthrough on Destigmatizing Mental Illness

OPINION - Carol Goar: Rare breakthrough on mental health
July 26, 2011 18:07:00   Carol Goar Toronto Star Columnist

It took nine years of pleading, lobbying and negotiating. But the breakthrough finally came. This week the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police unveiled province-wide guidelines on the disclosure of sensitive information about a person’s mental health. LINK

Police information checks, routinely required by employers and voluntary agencies, will no longer include any reference to an incident involving mental health that did not result in criminal charges.

Since the millennium, thousands of Ontarians have lost jobs, promotions and chances to serve their community because of a past mental health crisis. A family member might have phoned 911 during a suicide attempt. A doctor might have called for a police escort to the hospital after an adverse drug reaction. An individual with a mental disorder might have sought help during an emergency.

It all ends up in the police data bank.

That was where it remained until 1999. Then the Ontario government decreed that all new teachers must undergo police checks. The directive was well-intentioned — no parent wants his or her child exposed to a pedophile or predator — but it was devastating for job applicants who had experienced an episode of mental illness.

Other organizations quickly followed the schools. Daycare centres, nursing and retirement homes, sports leagues, community agencies and some businesses began requiring police checks.

(These are not criminal record checks. They are police information checks that include all contact between an individual and the police, regardless of the reason.)

Alarm bells soon started ringing at the Ontario Psychiatric Patient Advocate Office. David Simpson, who headed the independent government agency at the time, remembers fielding calls from dozens of people who had learned, to their horror, that they had police records. They were being barred from jobs and voluntary positions because of illnesses that had been successfully treated.

“It can stop people dead in their tracks,” he said. “For those who are on the road to recovery, it can be a devastating setback.”

Simpson heard from students who were afraid of failing their courses because they couldn’t get a voluntary placement; public servants who dared not seek promotions because of what might turn up in their police record; parents who couldn’t coach their kids’ soccer teams; retirees who couldn’t give back to their community.

In 2002, Simpson contacted Keith Norton, who was then the province’s human rights commissioner. He agreed the practice of releasing police information indiscriminately was a problem and took it up with Bob Runciman, the public safety minister of the day. Runciman said the issue was beyond his control. The Ontario Association of Police Chiefs was responsible for the use and disclosure of information collected by its members.

Fortunately, Norton’s successor, Barbara Hall, was more insistent. She wrote to every police chief in the province pointing out that the practice of releasing information about a person’s mental health was “potentially discriminatory.”

A handful of police forces, including Toronto’s, responded. It developed a sophisticated risk assessment tool to determine whether to release information about a person’s mental health. But most local forces continued to red-flag individuals who posed no threat.

The Ontario Psychiatric Patient Advocate Office still gets daily calls from people who want to apply for a job or become a volunteer, but fear they’ll be stigmatized and rejected.

The new guidelines won’t solve everything. They’re not binding; each police force will set its own policies. Nor do they seal all mental health records. Organizations with vulnerable clients will still have access to relevant mental health information.

Most stakeholders, however, consider them a fair compromise.

It shouldn’t have taken this long to get the balance between privacy and public safety right.

But in the mental health sector, where no victory comes easily, this is a moment to celebrate.

-  Carol Goar's column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. LINK