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Crisis in Canada: SSO Hosts Important Discussion About Human Rights

On June 3, 2015 the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario (SSO) had the privilege of hosting a lecture and discussion event titled “Crisis in Canada: Does the Mental Health System Violate Human Rights” in Toronto. Family members, people with lived experience and service providers came to the Aboozo Gallery in downtown Toronto to hear a panel of experts discuss mental health and human rights from client, family, policy, legal and service perspectives. The international panel of experts featured Dr. Soumitra Pathare, psychiatrist from the Centre for Mental Health Law & Policy at the Indian Law Society who travelled from Pune, India to give the keynote address. Other speakers included Dr. Kwame McKenzie from the Wellesley Institute, Dr. Howard Chodos from the Mental Health Commission of Canada, Tucker Gordon from the Empowerment Council, Dianne Wintermute from ARCH Disability Law Centre and Milesh Hamlai from the Altruist Organization in India.

Dr. Pathare discussed the disadvantages people living with mental illness in India have to face when it comes to basic human rights. Much like what is seen in Canada, barriers for people with mental health problems in India are present everywhere from education and housing to employment and finances.

“The unemployment rate of people with serious mental illness in India is as high as 95 per cent,” Dr. Pathare said to the audience. “There is systematic stigma against people with mental illness across the world and anti-stigma campaigns are not effective if laws and policies reinforce and perpetuate stigma.”

Dr. Pathare used the example of Hindu marriage laws where mental disorders are grounds for divorce and 90 per cent of those who claim this as a cause for divorce are men, though men are more likely to experience mental illness. Banks can also legally refuse to open accounts for people with intellectual and mental disabilities.

Milesh Hamlai, another speaker visiting Toronto from India, brought with him the perspective of a family member of someone living with mental illness. He talked about caring for his brother who lives with schizophrenia for over twenty years. Part of Indian culture is taking care of family members and they are deeply affected when a loved one is diagnosed with a mental illness. He spoke about the Altruist Organization which he started in 2007 which began as an agency to reunite wandering mentally ill people with their families and re-integrate mentally ill people back into society. Since then it has expended to include other mental health services as well.

Diane Wintermute discussed legislative implications, making the argument that the practice of appointing someone to act on behalf of a person living with mental illness violates the human rights code. “People with mental illness are seen as not being capable of making decisions about their treatment. This undermines independence, autonomy and personhood,” she said.

Dr. Howard Chodos spoke about mental health legislation in Canada, saying that there isn’t a one size fits all approach to fixing mental health laws, while Tucker Gordon discussed the systems that people with mental illness have to navigate, like housing and employment, are not created to accommodate them. “Most of us are oblivious of the ways we hurt, discriminate or trigger other people until it comes to our attention, especially when there is a power difference,” he said.

In the final presentation of the evening, Dr. McKenzie spoke about Ontario’s laws and policies in relation to mental health. “Canadians have the right to health but that right is often seen as a privilege,” said Dr. McKenzie. “Around the world people look to Canada as a defender of human rights, however people with mental illness are still vulnerable.”

Audience members expressed their frustration with the Canadian system during the lively question and answer portion. Mary Alberti, CEO of SSO, closed the event with a passionate plea for all those working in mental health – people with mental illness and their families, health professionals and government – to come together so that more to be done to improve the quality of care of people living with mental illness.