From 2009 to 2011, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) consulted on its mental health strategy with over 1,500 concerned individuals and groups, including approximately 1,000 people with mental health issues or addictions, as well as employers, service providers, housing providers, advocates, families and others. What the OHRC heard during this process can be found in Minds that Matter: Report on the consultation on human rights, mental health and addictions. The OHRC relied extensively on this invaluable input when developing this policy.
People with mental health disabilities or addictions have faced considerable and long-standing discrimination, stigmatization and social exclusion in Canada and across the world. People with disabilities such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and alcohol and drug addiction often face ignorance, fear and a lack of understanding. This stigmatization has been widely recognized in research, public policy, and by human rights decision-makers. For example, the Supreme Court of Canada has said:
There is no question but that the mentally ill in our society have suffered from historical disadvantage, have been negatively stereotyped and are generally subject to social prejudice.
The stigma of mental health and addiction disabilities is prevalent in Canadian society. A public opinion poll conducted by the Canadian Medical Association indicated that one in four Canadians (27%) said they would be afraid to be around someone with a serious mental illness. Research shows that the experience of being stigmatized affects people with mental health disabilities in several ways. For example, they may have concerns about being seen unfavourably or as incompetent, and they may avoid disclosing their disability.
Despite the prevalence of negative attitudes, prejudice, stereotyping, ignorance and misunderstanding about people with psychosocial disabilities, the reality is that many people have a mental health or addiction disability, or will develop one at some point in their lives. Research estimates that almost one in five Canadian adults will experience a mental illness or addiction.
For many people, these disabilities are episodic, which means they may fluctuate and include periods and degrees of wellness and disability. These periods of wellness and impairment may be unpredictable. They may be temporary or longer term over the course of a lifetime. Many mental health disabilities or addictions are described as “invisible” or “hidden” because they may not be obvious to others. They may exist on a spectrum from mild to severe. People with severe disabilities may experience a great degree of impairment, and society may create many barriers to full participation, compared to other people with less severe disabilities.
To understand the current context of discrimination, prejudice and exclusion that people with psychosocial disabilities experience, it is important to look at Canada’s past. Many of the barriers that exist in laws, policies, practices and attitudes today are a continuation of those from the distant and recent past. These tended to frame people with mental health or addiction disabilities as less human or worthy than other people, or in paternalistic ways as people needing others to make decisions for them. These attitudes are grounded in a belief system called “ableism,” or attitudes in society that devalue and limit the potential of persons with disabilities. Canada’s history of negative attitudes towards and treatment of people with psychosocial disabilities may explain to some extent how our modern society finds itself so ill-equipped to deal with many of the issues that these communities continue to face.
The Ontario Human Rights Code (the Code) protects people with mental health disabilities and addictions from discrimination and harassment under the ground of “disability.” The Code makes it public policy in Ontario to recognize the inherent dignity and worth of every person and to provide for equal rights and opportunities without discrimination.
The Preamble to the Code emphasizes the importance of creating a climate of understanding and mutual respect for the dignity and worth of each person, so that each person can contribute fully to the development and well-being of the community.
Despite having a medical diagnosis of mental illness, people may not consider themselves “unhealthy” or “disabled.” They may nevertheless experience discrimination based on disability. Even mental health disabilities that may be experienced as “minor” with no permanent manifestation could be entitled to protection under human rights legislation. No matter the nature of the disability, all people with mental health or addiction disabilities have the same rights to be free from discrimination under the Code.
The human rights principles of dignity and autonomy, individualization, respect for differences and full participation are fundamental to advancing the rights of people with psychosocial disabilities. Dignity and respect are ultimately linked to self-determination – people’s ability to have basic control over their lives. In its mental health consultation, the OHRC heard that 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.
 Ontario Human Rights Commission, Minds that Matter: Report on the consultation on human rights, mental health and addictions, 2012, available online at: www.ohrc.on.ca/en/minds-matter-report-consultation-human-rights-mental-health-and-addiction
 Supra, note 1.
 Canadian Medical Association, 8th Annual National Report Card on Health Care. August 2008 at page 27; available online at: www.cma.ca/multimedia/CMA/Content_Images/Inside_cma/Annual_Meeting/2008/GC_Bulletin/National_Report_Card_EN.pdf
 Ashley Oleniuk, C. Randy Duncan, and Raymond Tempier, “The Impact of Stigma of Mental Illness in a Canadian Community: A Survey of Patients’ Experiences,” Community Mental Health Journal 49 (2013): 131.
 Supra, note 2.
 Offord DR, et al., supra, note 3.
 Canadian Working Group on HIV and Rehabilitation, “What is an Episodic disability?”, available online at: www.hivandrehab.ca/EN/resources/description_episodic_disabilties.php (Retrieved: September 25, 2012).
 Gerald B. Robertson, “Mental Disability and Canadian Law” (1993) 2:1 Health L. Rev. 23.
 See the section on “Ableism, negative attitudes, stereotypes and stigma” for more information on ableism and its impact on people with psychosocial disabilities.
 See Appendix A for a detailed overview of the historical context of discrimination against people with psychosocial disabilities.
 Mellon v. Human Resources Development Canada, 2006 CHRT 3 at para. 88 (CanLII).