Scary Misuse of Information and Power

The full story is over on the Pysch Central blog, but the gist of it is this. Canadian woman books a cruise that boards in the US. Upon entering the US at border control, they border agent does a routine check of shared police records between the two countries. Agent notices police record tied to possibly suicide, or depression that refers to hospitalization for mental illness in 2012, and refuses entry based on a broadly written rule about denying entry based on a risk of danger to yourself or others.

The problems with this situation point out some of the larger problems of both our views of depression and mental illness, and our overzealous collection of information about people’s lives.

First off, let’s talk about those police records. They do get generated when the police are called to intervene for someone who might be a risk to themselves. They are not protected in the same way medical records are. In my experience these types of records are not the kind of thing that officers take great pains to be highly detailed and nuanced about. Having someone with no medical background access those records and make decisions based on them is a real problem. This is a great counter point to those who say we shouldn’t worry about increased surveillance because “I have nothing to hide”. Any detail that is recovered can, and will, be used by people of various levels to make decisions. Some of those decisions will be based on wholly inaccurate interpretations of that information. You may not have anything to hide, but you surely have things that could be interpreted quite differently by others who have the power to make them matter quite a bit.

The other thing that concerns me is this view that having a bout of depression somehow makes you a danger. I think this is a byproduct of our oversimplification of suicide and violence. Whenever we hear a news story involving suicide or a mass shooting, we always hear about the lack of mental health care and how access to mental health care could have helped avoid this. Look, I’m a huge advocate of mental health care, but we need to stop talking this way. They whys of suicide or mass violence are very complex and difficult to truly understand. We’ve made it too easy to view anyone who actually does attempt to get some sort of treatment for depression as a ticking time bomb. Any teen who needs anti-depressants is one mean text message away from suicide, any early adult male who happens to struggle with social skills or childhood abuse and seeks counseling is surely on the verge of shooting up a school. Mothers seeking help for postpartum depression? Get their kids away from them!

Surely those types of attitudes are not encouraging people to seek out help when they need it. More than that, they aren’t true. Yes, there are some people in need of mental healthcare who are actually a danger to themselves or others. Most are simply people who need some help in order to fully live their lives, get through difficult situations or learn to heal from traumatic events. We shouldn’t be forced to choose between seeking help and being labeled a risk and treated as such, or living in silent misery.

Was this woman truly a danger that required her to be refused entry to the US? I have no idea. I don’t know her and have no idea why she was hospitalized in 2012 and whether she is medicated now, or otherwise in a better place. The point, however, is that a random border control agent doesn’t know either. Simply having been treated for depression should not be a deciding factor in our ability to travel or have the same rights as those who haven’t had to be treated for depression, and until we see that as a normal part of life, those of us who have had to be treated will always be on the outside.

Have you ever been treated differently professionally, or by other establishments, because of your mental health history?

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