What do human rights mean to you? Is it the ability to vote? Maybe it's the freedom to choose where you live, your job and who you will marry. What about freedom of expression? Do you exercise these rights and freedoms or do you take them for granted? If you are like many Canadians, I would wager that you take them for granted a good deal of the time. Don't feel bad - I do, too. But is that OK? Is that right?
In Canada we have a Human Rights Act. The wikipedia definition is this: "The Canadian Human Rights Act is a statute passed by the Parliament of Canada in 1977 with the express goal of extending law to ensure equal opportunity to individuals who may be victims of discriminatory practices based on a set of prohibited grounds such as sex, disability or religion." Before former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau signed this Act it was not illegal to refuse a job to an applicant if she was a woman or if he was Jewish. Imagine that - only 38 years ago that form of discrimination was still legally and socially acceptable. We've come a long way though, right? Maybe not.
Today is October 10th and World Mental Health Day. The theme this year is Dignity in Mental Health. Why dignity? Here's how the World Health Organization explains it: "Thousands of people with mental health conditions around the world are deprived of their human rights. They are not only discriminated against, stigmatized and marginalized but are also subject to emotional and physical abuse in both mental health facilitates and the community." And if you think the WHO just means third world countries you are mistaken.
My own career has suffered some blows through my episodes of major depression. I absolutely had colleagues who thought that I was using mental illness as an excuse. And excuse for what, I am not sure. It certainly wasn't a get out of jail free card. And yes, it still stings when I think of the manager who was pretty transparent in her wish to be rid of me and that job that I was qualified for but passed over for someone far less experienced. I didn't speak up because I didn't want to upset anyone. I don't think anybody worried about upsetting me. And I am pretty sure nobody was thinking about the Human Rights Act, my own human rights or my dignity when any of that happened. In fact, I felt stripped of my dignity and it has taken me a long time to reclaim that.
In all honestly I don't believe that any of the discrimination that I experienced was intentional or mean-spirited. But that doesn't make it feel any better. I have friends and colleagues within the world of mental health advocacy who have experienced far worse than I: families that abused them or turned their backs on them in their weakest moments; health care professionals showing indifference and misdiagnosing illness; employers terminating employment or eliminating a candidate for a job because of mental illness. Come to think of it, I did experience some of that. Hmmm.
Thirty-eight years after the Human Rights Act legislation was enacted there is still wide-spread discrimination for those with disabilities. And to be clear, mental disorders (including mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, bi-polar disorder, as well as neurodevelopmental disabilities, Autism, ADHD, etc.) are considered disabilities. You may not have known that, perhaps. This is a common misunderstanding and misunderstandings lead to stigma and discrimination.
So how do we change this? How can we ensure that all our citizens are able to claim their rights and freedoms? I am glad you asked. Here are some suggestions:
* Unconscious bias is real thing that we all have. But we can choose what information serves us and eliminate what we know to no longer be true. Challenge yourself and challenge others.
* Be aware of the language that you use. I don't mean that we all have to be politically correct and worry about everything we say. What I am suggesting is that we recognize that words have a power of their own. Don't refer to a person who has Downs Syndrome as retarded. Don't say that you are depressed because your favourite TV show was cancelled. And here's your final 'don't': please don't say someone is Bi-polar. A person cannot be an illness. We don't say that someone is cancer. Someone has cancer.
* Decide what kind of community, province and country that you want to live in. Become educated about mental health issues. Volunteer for mental health organizations. And vote in elections - yes, your vote can make a difference.
I lost my dignity. I lost my self esteem. I lost my courage. And yes, I lost my voice for awhile. But once I found it and began to exercise it, I began to reclaim those other things. Most importantly, I made a promise to myself. I would not be a second class citizen. And neither would anyone else, if I could help it. As our federal election looms in the very near future please remember that our rights and freedoms are hard fought - don't neglect them. Find YOUR voice and fight for the dignity of those who need your help. We are all in this together, Canada.
Want to learn more about mental health issues or become involved? Read more about the fabulous organization that I volunteer with: Partners for Mental Health
Canadian Mental Health Association
The Kettle Society: Strength Through Mental Health
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
Inclusion BC: Advancing Rights. Promoting Abilities.