Discrimination against mental illness on the rise

Lack of education on mental health issues may be causing prejudice in workplace and beyond

  • Skyrocketing numbers of individuals filing mental-illness discrimination cases with Manitoba Human Rights Commission have caused calls from the community for understanding, compassion and tolerance. – Cindy Titus

Discrimination against persons with mental disabilities has the Manitoba Human Rights Commission concerned. A drastic rise in complaints over the last three years has left those involved to believe that the general public has been undereducated in regards to mental health.

“We think that it may be from the recession that people are under a lot more pressure, so the rate of mental health disabilities has increased,” stated Dianna Scarth, executive director of the Manitoba Human Rights Commission. “We also wonder whether the stigma has lessened so that people are more comfortable coming forward.”

Between 2000 and 2002, mental disability complaints held 16 per cent of the total disability complaints to the Commission. But, in the last three years it has hit a peak of 28 per cent.

“Complainants have felt that the mental health issue has not been given the same kind of consideration that a physical disability would be,” said Scarth.

The Commission’s goal is to act as both mediator and educator. They follow a non-biased third party approach, hearing and investigating complaints while educating the public on human rights.

As a result of the increase in these complaints, the Commission has a new seminar for employers that focuses on the accommodation of mental disabilities within the workplace.

Nigel Bart, founder of the Artbeat Studio, which helps people recover from mental illness through the expression of art, knows discrimination all too well.

Complainants have felt that the mental health issue has not been given the same kind of consideration that a physical disability would be.

Dianna Scarth, executive director, Manitoba Human Rights Commission

He was diagnosed with schizophrenia 16 years ago and even though he has had great support from family, he has lost friends, been disrespected by his doctors and turned down for jobs because of his condition in the past.

“I applied for a job in the mental health field as a counsellor thinking that my mental illness would bring me insight to the position,” said Bart, emphasizing that he was well on his way into recovery at the time. “They told me that I didn’t get the job because I made ... an unhealthy disclosure.”

Even though stories about crimes committed by those afflicted with mental illness often consume the media, Bart believes that most people do not know enough about mental illness.

He does recognize, however, that some cases require specialized treatment.

“I won’t pussyfoot around it, sometimes people need forced treatment,” Bart said.

Bart believes this type of treatment is a double-edged sword – you need to control the violent outbursts, but the accompanying psychosis and paranoia make accepting the illness more difficult.

As CEO of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada, Chris Summerville believes that the discrimination against mental illness stems from the lack of contact that most people have with those suffering from it.

“Growing up in (Alabama), it was only when I began to play with, go to school with ... and go to church with (other kids) ... and go visit each other’s home(s) that I stopped being a racist,” Summerville noted. “So it’s the same thing with mentalism.”

He believes that as a society, we are not addressing mental health issues like we do other illnesses of the body. Summerville believes this roots discrimination in the first diagnosis.

“Under the mental health act, if you are taken to the hospital ... by the police (for a mental health issue) it goes on your criminal record,” he said. “And it’s not even a criminal activity that you’ve been involved in.”

Published in Volume 65, Number 15 of The Uniter (January 13, 2011)

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