Recently I have written about the stigma associated with mental illness. Those of us who know the angst of mental illness can all identify with being snubbed on the street, being ignored by so-called friends. But there is another aspect of the stigma conversation that we ought to recognize and address.
Before I had my mental breakdown, this topic never really entered my mind. As a lawyer, I was certainly aware of the human rights laws in Nova Scotia (my home province) and Canada. It was not my area of practice, so I gave little consideration to them. On a personal level, I don’t think I ever experienced discrimination, at least not so blatantly that I recognized its impact.
As I began to volunteer with some mental health advocacy groups, I started to learn of the difficulties faced by other people with mental illness.
I heard stories of landlords not renting to people living with mental illness. Employers asking questions about personal matters such as medications. Others spoke of bosses not offering any form of accommodation in terms of changing hours of work.
In 2010, I worked with Canadian Mental Health Association on the Inquiry into the Death of Howard Hyde, a public judicial review of how Mr. Hyde was treated by police, doctors, and the overall medical and justice systems. Some of the evidence presented demonstrated that the treatment or lack of provided to Mr. Hyde while in police custody and at the hospital was the result of discrimination because he had schizophrenia. A proper discussion of what happened to Mr. Hyde would take a longer article. For this article, I thought it was important to mention Mr. Hyde to show the vast pervasiveness of discrimination. The harshness and brutality inflicted on Mr. Hyde would never have occurred with a person who was not living with a mental illness. Discrimination was a contributing factor in his death.
What are the laws around discrimination based on mental illness?
This question led me to do some research.
In Nova Scotia, the Human Rights Act states no person shall in respect of “employment, access to services” among others, discriminate against another person due to “mental disability.” When I read this Act years ago, I wasn’t keen on the use of “disability ” but I took it as akin to the use of “physical disability” in the legislation. I was just glad to see mental illness addressed.
The Canadian Human Rights Act uses the term “disability.”
One interesting example of law is in Ontario, where the Act speaks of discrimination and harassment because of mental disabilities and addictions, past, present, and perceived. Health authorities and medical groups recognize the correlation between mental illness and addictions and are addressing both jointly. I am pleased that the justice system is following suit.
The Americans with Disabilities Act covers mental “impairment.”
Looking beyond national borders, we have the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which covers mental disabilities.
My intent here is not to get into the politics behind these laws—especially the UN Convention. Nor do I want to get hung up on the use of specific words over others, whether it’s mental illness, mental disability, or mental impairment.
I mention the various human rights acts that cover mental illness in order to show that these issues have been addressed by our legislatures.
On most social issues, our lawmakers tend to lag behind in making laws to reflect the changes in society and how we choose to live.
I suggest with mental illness, the opposite is occurring. We have human rights legislation enacted that clearly covers such discrimination. I don’t think society is as advanced. We still have terrible cases of discrimination happening. Perhaps we always will.
I then wondered if people are accessing the human rights laws. What’s happening on the ground? I was pleasantly surprised with what I found.
In Nova Scotia, for 2014-15, there were a total of 185 complaints filed with the Human Rights Commission. The most common complaint, 75, sought recourse for discrimination based on physical disability. The next most common, 52, made reference to discrimination based on mental disability. It appears people in Nova Scotia are seeking to protect their rights and looking for that voice. I hope the same is occurring in other jurisdictions.
Are men part of the conversation? Yes, we are. When I first went public with my journey through depression back in 2008, few men were speaking. Now, we have good people such as those behind The Good Men Project who recognize the need for a focus on the conversation about mental health awareness. We are making progress though there is still a lot of work to be done for full awareness. My voice was heard, our collective voice will be heard.
If people, including myself, use ‘discrimination” instead of “stigma”, the discussion could be advanced and the behavior of people will change.
Discrimination has a more certain and clearer meaning to all, and we know its impact. Stigma seems to put some form of blame or red mark against the person with mental illness. When in fact, it falls on the person with the incorrect and improper attitude about mental illness. We know who is in the wrong when we use discrimination.
The treatment and acceptance of people living with mental illness needs to change. We deserve respect and understanding. Discrimination against us is a civil rights matter. We are merely part of the full and diverse society in which we live and to which we contribute.
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