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Second Opinion

Mental illness - past or present - is not a crime

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

Is having a bout of mental illness something that should result in a police record?

Astoundingly, that is the reality in much of this country.

It is an egregious breach of civil rights, yet the practice continues because people who suffer serious mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are all too often voiceless, powerless and victims of well-entrenched stereotypes.

To understand this story, a little background is in order. In the post-9/11 era, police checks have become the norm in our society; it is a simple way of weeding out pedophiles and other "bad" people, or at least giving the illusion of doing so.

If you apply for a job or a volunteer position - fundraising at the local hospital, coaching a peewee hockey team, helping out with the school choir or any other of those innumerable, thankless tasks - you will have to agree to a police check.

These checks come in two forms.

The first is a search of the computerized records maintained by the Canadian Police Information Centre. If you have a criminal record, the information is likely to show up in CPIC.

The second is a police records check. In addition to CPIC, local, municipal and provincial police forces maintain their own computerized records.

These records contain all manner of information about any contact you have with police, whether you are a criminal, a victim or a witness.

When you have a loud party and the neighbours rat you out, both your names are in the system. A Good Samaritan calling 911 is in there, and so are the people they are calling about, even if they are harming no one but themselves.

People who suffer bouts of mental illness tend to have a lot of encounters with police. They make suicide attempts and threats of suicide. Sometimes they starve themselves, drink or drug themselves silly, make paranoia-spewing phone callsand trash their cars. And these are the "respectable" people with nice homes and good jobs, not the stereotypical "crazy" street people.

These encounters all result in a police record.

"So what?" you may ask.

Aside from the principle that we should not accept gratuitous violations of civil rights, there are practical harms being done every day. Take the example of Ontario, where the Mental Health Police Records Check Coalition has done a wonderful job bringing this issue to light.

If you apply for almost any volunteer post in Ontario working with children, the elderly, people with disabilities etc. you must undergo a Vulnerable Person Screening.

This report will tell the volunteer agency if there are red flags on a person's police record. Some police forces simply make the vague statement that there is "information of concern," while others provide details such as "suicide attempt" or "arrest under the Mental Health Act."

(Incidentally, when people are detained under the terms of the Mental Health Act, it is not an arrest. Police have the legal right to take people who are a danger to themselves for treatment at a medical or psychiatric facility, but police tend to use the misnomer "arrest.")

Mental illness is a medical issue. What business do police have disclosing this information to potential employers? Some police forces retain and release this information for up to 25 years after an "encounter."

Police in London, Ont., no longer release mental-health information contained in police records, a change made as part of a settlement of a human-rights complaint.

That should be the norm everywhere in Canada.

Police records contain other sensitive medical information, including whether a person who has encountered police is infected with HIV, hepatitis or other diseases. Police would not dream of releasing this information as part of a background check. So why is it okay to disclose suicide attempts, psychotic episodes and other cries for help?

It's done because of lingering stereotypes about people with mental illness being violent and untreatable.

The reality is that the mentally ill are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, and it is those with severe, untreated mental illness who tend to be violent, but are unlikely to be applying for work - volunteer or otherwise.

The reality, too, is that the vast majority of people who suffer a bout of mental illness get better. For many, part of the healing process from these horribly isolating and soul-destroying illnesses is reintegrating into the community. That means getting work, volunteering and building social networks anew.

That's what makes these policies doubly horrific. They not only discriminate against people for no good reason, but they can set back their recovery and destroy their hope of being a "normal" citizen again.

Having a mental illness - present or past - is not a crime. But discriminating against people with mental illness in this manner is.

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