October 30, 2018
In the past five years, Canada has made tremendous strides in the fight to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health. The #BellLetsTalk campaign has been at the forefront, considering the campaign routinely grabs the world’s attention using a single hashtag to raise money for mental health initiatives.
While the stigma may not be as prevalent as it was a decade ago, what has recently been discovered when it comes to Canadians with mental illnesses trying to cross the border is the harsh reality that the stigma is still very much alive.
The issue first starts all the way back in 2014 when the discovery of a database was first uncovered by the mainstream media. This database had a record of every Canadian’s history of mental health that had been dealt with by a doctor. Such information was available to US Border Control and the FBI.
The reason behind the database in the first place is that people diagnosed with certain mental illnesses can often be deemed unfit to fly, or are at risk of hurting themselves or others in the country they are travelling to. With this in mind, the US is able to access this information at the border so they are able to determine if a Canadian crossing the border is mentally fit to not be a risk to themselves or others during their time in America.
While the database does in part make sense, the fact that many Canadians are unaware of the concept is what is so shocking. Numerous situations have arisen in recent years in which Canadians have had their travel plans cancelled due to border officials obtaining information about a diagnosis of mental illness years prior.
For example, Ellen Richardson’s dream cruise vacation was cancelled after border patrol used the database to find that she had been diagnosed with clinical depression in 2012 and had, in Richardson’s own words, “half-attempted suicide”.
While you may think that such disclosure of suicide to a border patrol agent is a breach of privacy, the Toronto Police Service is required by law to register attempted suicides onto the record. That information is then uploaded onto the CPIC, the Canadian Police Information Centre which is available to the RCMP, FBI and US Border Control.
Though what makes the situation so concerning is that whether a suicide attempt is uploaded onto the CPIC is actually up to the discretion of the police who responded to the call. They get to judge if the seriousness of the attempt warrants it going on record, and if any follow up should be organized.
The government most recently addressed this matter through the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada on September 21st of 2017, admitting that the database comprised of Canadian’s private health information did exist and was available for the United States to see.
While this was admitted, it was also recommended that the RCMP should remodel the CPIC policies similar to the Toronto Police Service’s model where a Mental Health Disclosure Test is administered as well as a “more limited record retention period.” On top of that, they also recommended that the time period of reviewing an entry’s relevancy should be every two years rather than the five years, which was the rule at the time of posting.
Though even with all of this in mind, there is no public record on if these changes were made. Judging by a post on Reddit, it seems the issues that were happening in 2012 are still happening today. The post in question was made by a Reddit user named lostandconcerned88 who captioned his story as “Disappointed in the mental health system in Ontario:”
The story detailed how the user’s son had been “prohibited from crossing the US border because of his depression diagnosis.” Believing that there was a possibility of a “mental health roster” in Canada, not realizing that there is, in fact, a database that does exist and is shared with the United States.
Reddit users quickly chimed in on the post, some were heavily skeptical as the user neglected to disclose if their son had been in contact with police prior to attempting to cross the border, as that is when such information would get uploaded onto the CPIC. Others quickly referenced past experiences showing that the Canadian government has not done a proper job of disclosing the existence of such a database to the public.
Considering that more and more Canadians are being diagnosed with mental health issues, the disclosure of possible restrictions at the border is crucial.
Keeping this information relatively quiet leaves Canadians with mental illnesses subject to being othered in a country that has prided itself in advocating for normalizing those who are dealing with mental health problems.