More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Shameful Profiling of the Mentally Ill
December 7, 2013

A CANADIAN woman was denied entry to the United States last month because she had been hospitalized for depression in 2012. Ellen Richardson could not visit, she was told, unless she obtained ?medical clearance? from one of three Toronto doctors approved by the Department of Homeland Security. Endorsement by her own psychiatrist, which she could presumably have obtained more efficiently, ?would not suffice.? She had been en route to New York, where she had intended to board a cruise to the Caribbean.

?I was so aghast,? Ms. Richardson told a Toronto Star reporter. ?I don?t understand this. What is the problem?? I was so looking forward to getting away. I?d even brought a little string of Christmas lights I was going to string up in the cabin.?

The border agent told her he was acting in accordance with the United States Immigration and Nationality Act, Section 212, which allows patrols to block people from visiting the United States if they have a physical or mental disorder that threatens anyone?s ?property, safety or welfare.? The Star reported that the agent produced a signed document stating that Ms. Richardson would need a medical evaluation because of her ?mental illness episode.? A spokeswoman for United States Customs and Border Protection told The Star that the agency was prohibited from discussing specific cases because of privacy laws.

This is not the first time such measures have been reported. In 2011, Lois Kamenitz, a Canadian and a former teacher, was barred from entering the United States because she had once attempted suicide. Ryan Fritsch, former co-chairman of the Ontario Mental Health Police Record Check Coalition, told the Star that he had heard of eight similar cases that year. After the incident, he wrote to me: ?My sense is that there are a great many people being turned away. I?ve also heard of executive-level reps from various Canadian and provincial mental health advocacy and awareness organizations being turned away at the border on their way to conferences and other official functions and appearances,? presumably because of their own medical histories.

Ms. Richardson?s health information should never have been available to United States authorities, and many Canadians are outraged at the thought that their government may have divulged it. It?s not clear at this point, however, what the customs agent saw.

Her ruined vacation could have been a result of his access to law enforcement databases. Ms. Richardson explained to me that when she was hospitalized in June 2012, the police were involved because she had made a suicide attempt that led to a 911 call. But even if it is police data rather than medical data that has been shared, the use by immigration authorities remains troubling.

Much more troubling, however, is the notion that information about a person?s depression, no matter how legitimately obtained, might have any bearing on her ability to visit the United States.

People in treatment for mental illnesses do not have a higher rate of violence than people without mental illnesses. Furthermore, depression affects one in 10 American adults, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pillorying depression is regressive, a swoop back into a period when any sign of mental illness was the basis for social exclusion.

The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 prevents employers from discriminating against people who have a mental illness. If we defend the right of people with depression to work anywhere, shouldn?t we defend their right to enter the country? Enshrining prejudice in any part of society enables it in others. Most of the people who fought for the right of gay people to serve in the military did so not because they hoped to become gay soldiers themselves, but because any program of government-sanctioned prejudice undermined the dignity of all gay people. Similarly, this border policy is not only unfair to visitors, but also constitutes an affront to the millions of Americans who are grappling with mental-health challenges.

Stigmatizing the condition is bad; stigmatizing the treatment is even worse. People who have received help are much more likely to be in control of their demons than those who have not. Yet this incident will serve only to warn people against seeking treatment for mental illness. If we scare others off therapy lest it later be held against them, we are encouraging denial, medical noncompliance and subterfuge, thereby building not a healthier society but a sicker one.

We have already seen such a situation: For more than 20 years the United States prohibited people with H.I.V. from entering the country. We were one of a very few countries to take this bigoted stand. An activist lobby fought against the ban, which was finally lifted in 2009. President Obama expressed his belief that the ban had led to bias against people with H.I.V., which discouraged people from getting tested.

Ms. Richardson, who attempted suicide in 2001 and as a result is paraplegic, has asserted that she has had appropriate treatment, and that she now has a fulfilling, purposeful life. We should applaud people who get treatment and manage to live deeply despite their challenges. It is both humane and in our self-interest to ensure that as many people as possible avail themselves, without governmental disapprobation, of the array of supports that may help them. The president needs to speak out against Section 212 as he did against the H.I.V. ban and to put to rest the idea that people with mental health conditions who pose no danger are unwelcome in our country.

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
he RCMP Knows When You Are Suicidal ? And Tells the U.S.

Hey Canadians! The RCMP Knows When You Are Suicidal ? And Tells the U.S.
By John M. Grohol, Psy.D.
December 10, 2013

Last week, I wrote about how Canadian Ellen Richardson, who suffers from bouts of depression, was barred from entering the U.S. One of the outstanding question raised about that story was how U.S. customs agents were accessing Canadians? suicide attempts and hospitalization records. A senior official for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency told me that they only have access to criminal and police databases, from a mutual sharing arrangement with Canada.

Well, it appears the Canadian RCMP are the ones to blame. Because for years now, the RCMP has been putting information about Canadians who attempt or even just threaten suicide into a national law enforcement database called the CPIC. Which is then shared with U.S. customs and law enforcement agencies.

Why would the RCMP want to keep track of those who threaten suicide in a law enforcement database? Is this just another example of the police discriminating against people with mental illness?

The Toronto Star once again has the story. Here?s what the RCMP had to say in their defense:

?Information related to individuals that are known to have attempted or threatened to commit suicide is collected and placed on CPIC to protect the individuals themselves, the general public and/or police officers who may come in contact with them, from possible harm,? Trottier said.

?The information allows police services to be aware of individuals that may be a danger to themselves or others.?

How often does a suicidal person threaten another person? Rarely. So rarely, in fact, that the U.S. doesn?t have the same blanket requirement.

Attempted suicide and suicide threats are not efforts to inflict violence outward. Since law enforcement professionals don?t usually have much specialized mental health training ? other than to use a variety of strategies to de-escalate an emotional situation ? it doesn?t seem to offer much benefit in tracking this information. Even more egregious is sharing this information with other countries.

What possible use or value is it to have a customs agent ? who has even less specialized mental health training ? make haphazard, off-the-cuff judgment calls about a person?s mental health as they?re trying to enter our borders? It is simply another form of discrimination against the mentally ill to have such ill-trained, ill-informed individuals given that responsibility and power. By a government official, no less.

The good news is that some Canadians are as upset as we are, and are doing something about it:

It?s one of the avenues that Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian says she is exploring, after opening an investigation last week into how a U.S. border agent became privy to private health information about Ellen Richardson, who had gone to the airport to start a vacation.

Police reports about people who attempt suicide should not be automatically put into a national database system shared with U.S. authorities, says Cavoukian.

And she?s not the only one:

At least one representative of a leading mental health organization is questioning the RCMP assertion that ?leading mental health organizations?? support adding information about potential suicides to CPIC.

?I would question that ? I would like to know who those leading mental health authorities are,? said Uppala Chandrasekera, policy director with the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

?Mental health information is not criminal ? it should not be released,? she said. ?Maybe there needs to be laws or regulations to say you can?t forward that information on,? she said.

Agreed. Mental health information is not criminal, and a suicide threat has little to do with criminality. There?s no government interest in sharing that information, not only amongst other law enforcement professionals, but internationally ? with people in other countries who are using that information to discriminate.

Richardson isn?t the only one who?s been denied entry into the U.S. by a random decision made by an untrained customs agent. Canadian Amanda Box had a similar experience back in September:

But in mid-September, when she went to Pearson Airport with her American boyfriend to go to his home in Colorado for a weekend, it was a different story.

While she was standing in front of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent, Box says he looked at his computer screen ?and he said something about ?mental health issues.? Then he said, ?Yeah, you?re really crazy.? ??

Box said he told her that she wasn?t being allowed to enter the U.S. and that she needed more documentation because she was considered a ?flight risk. They said I might try and stay,?? said Box, who felt upset and humiliated and shocked that someone in that position could be so rude.


She was also turned back in June of this year when she and her boyfriend were at Niagara Falls and thought they?d go across the border for dinner.

At that point, the agent put her name in the system. She was told by a border agent that she was considered a flight risk and could not enter.

?He also asked me, what medications are you on???

What business is it of the U.S. government to ask foreigners visiting our country what medications they are on? How is this relevant to determining whether a person can enter and visit our country legally?

These appear to be tragic examples of overzealous U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents targeting people with mental illness because they?re being given the chance to do so, thanks to the RCMP?s decision to share that information with them. Imagine if they had access to every country?s mental health records?


MVP, Forum Supporter
Shocking - we travel a fair bit and now I am wondering if this would ever happen to me
Where is the protection the rights to privacy our own government has done this to it people i don't get it Just another way to abuse the already abused
I was utterly appalled when I came across this article. How dare anyone profile someone's personal medical information outside of a medical purview. Not only does this occur in Canada, but also it takes place in the U.S. anytime that someone calls 911. Unfortunately, it has become prudent to carefully weigh the pros and cons of calling in law enforcement to resolve an escalated situation. Not too long ago, I had a family member who was in crisis and his psychologist informed us not to hesitate to contact 911 if necessary. Because of my own health and understanding of mental illness, I knew that the best course of action was to remain with the person 24/7 until the crises was over. Of course, this is not a caveat for everyone. Yet, it is a call I am willing to make again. Law enforcement or any other force have no business trying to handle mental health issues. In Ellen Richardson's case, her suicide attempt occurred years ago. She was in therapy. Why in heavens was she on someone's list. Her privacy was extremely violated and my heart goes out to her.
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