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Public consultation paper: Human rights and mental health strategy

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According to Health Canada, mental illness[1] affects one in five Canadians in their lifetime. Despite the prevalence of mental health disabilities[2] in the general population, people with mental health disabilities and addictions face multiple discriminatory barriers, both individual and institutional, to full participation in society. These barriers result largely from negative societal attitudes about mental health and psychiatric disabilities. They have contributed to experiences of systemic inequality, including poverty, lack of access to appropriate treatment and support services, and difficulties obtaining employment and housing. Discrimination can compound the effects of living with mental health disabilities by making it harder to seek treatment, exacerbating or triggering mental health disabilities and addictions, and making it more difficult to recover by limiting available supports.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) has serious concerns about the degree to which people with mental health disabilities experience discrimination. In its former complaint processing capacity, the OHRC received complaints each year alleging that people had been discriminated against because of mental health disabilities. The OHRC has also conducted consultations in which it has heard about the need to promote and protect the human rights of people with mental health disabilities, including consultations on disability and the duty to accommodate, discrimination in rental housing, and mental health and police record checks.

Based on these concerns, the OHRC is developing a human rights mental health strategy to guide its activity in addressing systemic areas of discrimination affecting people with mental health disabilities. In September 2009, the OHRC started meeting with individuals and organizations in the field regarding human rights concerns faced by people with mental health disabilities. This second stage of consultation is aimed at soliciting your views to identify key approaches, issues and projects in these areas.

The purpose of this consultation document is to:

  • Describe the human rights protections related to mental health disabilities that are available under the Human Rights Code (Code)
  • Describe the OHRC’s current work in this area
  • Provide a summary of the key issues that have been raised with the OHRC so far
  • Lay out areas of focus the OHRC is considering and solicit feedback

The OHRC’s Mandate

Section 29 of the Code gives the OHRC a broad mandate for dealing with issues of discrimination. It is the role of the OHRC to promote an understanding of and compliance with the Code through several functions:

  • developing and conducting programs of public information and education
  • undertaking, directing and encouraging research into discriminatory practices
  • reviewing legislation, programs and policies and making recommendations where these are inconsistent with the Code.
  • initiating reviews and inquiries into incidents of tension or conflict, or conditions that lead or may lead to incidents of tension or conflict
  • promoting, assisting and encouraging public, municipal or private agencies, organizations, groups or persons to engage in programs to alleviate tensions and conflicts based on Code grounds
  • approving policies
  • making applications to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario
  • reporting on the state of human rights in Ontario

The OHRC wants to know how it can best use its mandate to address issues of discrimination against people with mental health disabilities.

[1] Although definitions of mental illness vary, Health Canada indicates that mental illnesses are characterized by alterations in thinking, mood or behaviour (or some combination thereof) associated with significant distress and impaired functioning over an extended period of time. Health Canada, A Report on Mental Illnesses in Canada (Ottawa: Health Canada, 2002), at 16.

[2] The OHRC is aware of the lack of consensus around terms describing mental health issues and people experiencing them. Differences in terminology are based in differences in ideologies in how to conceptualize mental health and the relationship between the mental health system and those who use or do not use it. Many terms are criticized as being inadequate and stigmatizing by those experiencing mental health issues. Labels for people with mental health issues can stigmatize people when they reduce individual identities to a medical “problem.” Where possible, people should be referred to by the term they use to self-identify.

However, recognizing that a diversity of experience exists among individuals with experiences of mental health issues, and the fluidity of language, in the context of this paper, the OHRC will use the terms “mental health disability” and “people with mental health disabilities”. Participants thus far in the consultation have identified that the OHRC should consider using terms that reflect health, avoid medicalized definitions, reflect domestic and international protections for people with disabilities, apply to people who may or may not seek treatment, and are adopted by the consumer survivor movement. In its guide, “A Way with Words and Images: Suggestions for the portrayal of people with disabilities,” The Government of Canada has recommended using the term “mental health disabilities” (Ottawa: Human Resources and Development Canada, 2006).

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