By Laura Track, Human Rights Lawyer, May 5, 2020

Part 1 – Challenging Stigma

The Canadian Mental Health Association has named this week Mental Health Week. It’s a great opportunity to remember that mental health is a critical component of our overall health and well-being.

The theme of this year’s Mental Health Week is “Getting Real” about mental health by speaking up about how we’re really feeling. Too often, we reflexively say we’re “fine” when we’re not. By acting like everything’s OK, we miss the opportunity to receive support for what we’re going through. In this time of increased isolation and physical distancing, reaching out is more important than ever.

Unfortunately, due to stigma and unfair stereotypes about mental illness, it can be difficult for people to speak up about their mental health. It can be a lot easier to share that you have a physical illness, an injury, or some other form of physical disability than it is to disclose that you’re going through a mental health crisis. Misperceptions about mental health typically result from unfair judgment and a lack of understanding. While we would never fault someone because they got sick or broke their leg, judgment and blame can be the unfortunate result when someone discloses a mental health issue.

People may fear disclosing a mental health issue because of concern that they’ll be treated negatively by their employer or colleagues, their landlord, their strata, or another service provider, like a social worker. Sometimes, unfortunately, these fears are well-founded. Claims of discrimination due to mental disability, which include claims relating to mental health issues, are among the most common complaints made to BC’s Human Rights Tribunal.

It’s important to know that you have a right to fair and non-discriminatory treatment if you have a mental health issue. Mental health challenges like depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder are all mental disabilities that are protected from discrimination under BC’s Human Rights Code.

Employers, unions, landlords, stratas, and service providers must all ensure they do not discriminate against people with mental disabilities. This duty not to discriminate may require them to appropriately inquire about a possible mental health issue, and to accommodate that mental health issue by taking steps to support a person’s mental health needs. A safe, fair, and non-judgmental process is critical to addressing mental health issues, particularly when they arise in the workplace.

In parts two and three of this series, we’ll explore the duty to accommodate and the duty to inquire – two key concepts in human rights law with important connections to mental health.