TORONTO - The Ontario Human Rights Commission released a set of guidelines Wednesday on how to best handle human rights issues related to the mentally ill, saying it hoped other provinces would follow suit.
The new policy — which comes at a time when statistics suggest one in five Canadians experience a mental health illness in any given year — offers those dealing with mental illness, as well as their employers, landlords and other service providers "user-friendly" advice on how to best identify and combat rights violations.
"Until very recently many people have been fearful of coming out of the veritable closet where they found themselves because of fear, because of stigma, because of discrimination and barriers," chief commissioner Barbara Hall told The Canadian Press.
"This policy is saying that people with mental health issues are protected under the human rights code. They have rights. Employers, service providers, landlords all have responsibilities and we need to understand those better and then we need to take action to remove the barriers."
Individuals dealing with mental health issues are guaranteed equal rights and opportunities under Ontario's Human Rights Code in areas such as jobs, housing and services. But the commission said many still continue to face "considerable discrimination, stigma and social exclusion."
The problem over the years has been that many are unclear on what counts as discrimination and how to best navigate the situation, said Hall.
"The human rights code says you can't discriminate on the basis of disability, period," she said. "What we're doing is taking those words and answering the questions, filling in the blanks about what does that look like."
The 109-page policy explains the rights afforded to those dealing with mental health issues, offers examples of human rights violations on the basis of mental illness or addiction, and suggests practical advice on how to deal with such situations.
"People want to comply with the law," Hall said. "But we don't often know what to do, we don't know what the rights are, we don't know what the responsibilities are."
People with mental health disabilities or addictions are more likely to have low incomes and many live in chronic poverty, the policy noted. They could also face further complications when experiencing discrimination based on other grounds, like gender or race.
Meanwhile, some diagnosed with a mental illness may not consider themselves "disabled" but could still experience discrimination and are entitled to protection under human rights legislation, the policy said.
"The loss of self-determination, autonomy and dignity because of discrimination based on a psychosocial disability has a deep and significant impact on people’s lives, and can prevent them from fully taking part in the life of the province," the policy said. "All people with mental health or addiction disabilities have the same rights to be free from discrimination under the code."
The ultimate responsibility for creating and sustaining a discrimination-free environment rests with employers, housing providers and service providers, the policy noted.
"It is not acceptable to choose to stay unaware of discrimination or harassment of a person with a mental health disability or addiction, whether or not a human rights claim has been made," it said. "All of society benefits when people with mental health or addiction disabilities are given equal opportunity to take part at all levels."
While the majority of human rights complaints in Ontario relate to disabilities, the issues brought forward are "almost exclusively" related to physical disabilities and not mental health issues, said Hall, who hoped Ontario's new policy would change that ratio.
"We believe it will be both a trigger and a tool," she said of the new guidelines. "When people understand that their rights are protected, (we hope) that they'll be more willing to speak out. When employers realize that the law places obligations on them, they'll be more likely to move proactively."