We often we hear that our past will determine our future. To create a positive future for ourselves, we volunteer, engage in new opportunities, educate ourselves and learn from our mistakes. In job interviews, we speak convincingly about our positive experiences which make us strong candidates. We focus on the most impressive aspects of our resume, with the option of not mentioning any less-than-ideal situations in past positions. Fortunately, we have some control over what others may know about us by being selective about what we choose to disclose. This was not, however, an option when it came to police checks.
Until recently, police checks in the city of Toronto included encounters with the police related to mental health issues (see recent article highlighting changes here). Although these were “non-criminal” encounters, in many cases it may have felt like they held that the same kind of heaviness as criminal charges for the individuals who had these encounters recorded on their police checks. These pieces of documentation are often the very first and most important thing that employers look at. You could have decades of volunteer experience in your field of interest, relevant education, work experience, and more, but in many cases the determining factor for landing a job is a clear background check.
Imagine you were in an emotionally difficult situation a year ago. You were overloaded with the stresses of life and had no one to turn to. You were reaching your tipping point and felt that you were a safety threat to yourself. In order to protect yourself you made a call to the police, the most obvious option and the first one to come to mind. Today, you are in the job hunt and strongly regretting the decision you made because despite feeling like you aced the interviews, you did not pass the police check. This was the reality for many people until this recent change.
There are mixed opinions about this newly instituted change. Of course, there are many people who support this practice because it signals equality in hiring practices, but there are others who believe it is outrageous for workplaces not to know whether the person they are about to hire is “unsafe”. It is important to remember that the connection between violence and mental illness is a misconception, and that someone with a mental illness is no more likely to be violent than someone without a mental illness (Elbogen & Johnson, 2009).
Accessing help and managing mental illness can be challenging, and removing this information from standard police checks helps to remove a barrier that might hinder accessing and maintaining employment and volunteer opportunities. Experience with mental illness is a health care concern, and personal health information is protected under the Personal Health Information Protection Act (2004). The recent decision to remove this information from police checks helps reduce stigma around mental illness and treats mental illness the same way we treat any other illness, as personal health information. Lastly, if the public could be upfront about mental health, instead of suppressing the topic, then perhaps that would increase access to help.
If you, or someone you know, are experiencing a crisis related to a mental illness, there are supports that are just one phone call away. These crisis support lines are confidential and can serve as an alternative to calling the police:
- 408 Help Line | Toronto Distress Centre: (416) 408-4357
- Gerstein Centre: (416) 929-5200
- Scarborough Hospital Mobile Crisis Program (includes Scarborough and East York): 416-495-2891
- York Support Services Network (includes York region and North York): 1-855-310-COPE (2673) 1-866-323-7785(TTY)
- Anishnawbe 24/7 Mental Health Crisis Management Services: 416-891-8606
Elbogen EB, Johnson SC. The intricate link between violence and mental disorder: results from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. Arch Gen Psychiatry 2009;66(2):152-61.