Mental Health Privacy Given Weight in Ontario

It took nine years of pleading, lobbying and negotiating, but the breakthrough has finally come. The Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police has unveiled province-wide guidelines on the disclosure of sensitive information about a person’s mental health.

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It took nine years of pleading, lobbying and negotiating, but the breakthrough has finally come. The  Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police has unveiled province-wide guidelines on the disclosure of sensitive information about a person’s mental health.

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.

While not binding, members of more than 50 forces, including the Ontario Provincial Police, have started training to use the new guidelines. Police forces in British Columbia and Manitoba are preparing similar initiatives but Ontario is the first to draft consistent, province-wide guidelines. Most of Ontario’s police chiefs want to adopt the new guidelines for their forces to end bureaucratic confusion and avoid lawsuits. People with mental illnesses often have non-criminal contacts with the police, such as someone attempting suicide, a patient requiring an escort to a hospital, a neighbour calling 9-1-1 to report a person in distress.

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. Patients and advocates have long complained that such incidents are recorded into police databanks and can end up released to third parties.

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.

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.

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