Taking mental health info out of background screening

Mental health history no indication of person's integrity, safety risk
By Carolyn Dewa
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/18/2015

It’s generally understood that background checks are performed for good reason. But there are potential privacy issues: The information provided to prospective employers is drawn from police databases that may contain information about a history of mental illness, if that history also involved a police contact. 

A police contact does not necessarily mean a person broke the law and was convicted. Rather, it can occur because he was investigated but not charged, was a victim or witness of a crime, or had non-criminal contact with police during an episode of mental illness. 

The amount of information potential employers receive depends on the jurisdiction in which they make the request. In turn, it is also influenced by the type of background check requested. In some jurisdictions, the type of information related to mental illness that is reported is left to the discretion of the police.

Reporting mental health history

The reporting of a person’s history of mental illness in a police background check seems to be predicated on three assumptions. First, it assumes that contact with the police during an episode of mental illness indicates that either a person’s integrity is questionable or the person may be a safety risk to those around them. 

This assumption reinforces fear of those with mental disorders. Almost one-half of workers who said they would be concerned if a co-worker had a mental health problem said it was because there were fears about the safety of working with that co-worker, as well as her reliability, found a 2015 Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) survey of over 2,000 Ontario workers. Is that a valid fear?  

The problem with mental illness is there is no vaccine to protect against it; given the right set of circumstances, we are all at risk of developing a mental illness. During any given month, between eight and 11 per cent of Canadian workers experience a mental illness, according to CAMH. 

That means if you have a work group of 10, it is highly likely at least one person is suffering from a mental illness. If each of these people were actually prone to violence, we would have an epidemic of violence in our workplaces. In reality, incidences of co-worker violence make the headlines precisely because they are rare. 

The second assumption is that a person with a history of mental illness has forfeited his right to privacy. It forces a disclosure about a mental illness that the person may not be ready to give. When CAMH asked Ontario workers about whether they would choose to tell their boss about a mental illness, 40 per cent said they would not. 

More than one-half of the people who would not tell their managers if they were experiencing mental illness believed disclosing would hurt their careers. That is not surprising given the fear of mental illness.

The third assumption is that mental illness is unrelenting and unremitting. In truth, for the majority of people, it is not. Treatments and supports have made recovery possible for most mental illnesses. 

Changing perceptions

So, should we just let mentally ill individuals into our workplaces?  In fact, it really is hard to keep them out; they may already be there or may become mentally ill after they are in. Perhaps there is another way to look at it. 

Because most Canadians are employed and because most of their waking hours are spent at work, the workplace presents an opportunity to positively influence perceptions. 

In turn, the positive experiences workers have at work can be exported to their families and friends to improve the quality of life in the community.  

Fortunately, there are effective programs like those that have been developed and tested by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, such as the Opening Minds Initiative, that help workplaces create healthy and supportive environments for all workers. It is in these types of environments that workers are willing to talk to their managers about their struggles with mental illness and are encouraged to seek help. 

Ultimately, this will lead to increased productivity for employers. In a supportive and safe environment, revealing a mental health struggle can allow an employer and worker to work together to identify solutions, build trust and confidence in one another and increase productivity. 

At the same time, it should be noted that in a less than supportive environment, a worker also has a right to workplace accommodation and does not need to disclose a diagnosis. But fear may prevent the worker from asking for help and result in her suffering in silence.  

Changes to screening processes

This is not to say workplace violence should not be prevented.  However, if police databases contain a record of violent behaviour, is it necessary to know whether it was related to a mental illness? 

Does knowing someone’s health history offer any indication of a person’s integrity or safety risk? 

In fact, some of Canada’s provinces recognize a need to limit the type of information to be released and are moving away from providing non-conviction type of information. 

Part of the rationale is based on the recognition there is a limit to the type of non-conviction-related mental illness information prospective employers need. 

For example, during the 2015 legislative session, Ontario will consider the Police Record Checks Reform Act which would limit the reporting of this type of information to employers. 

In 2015, British Columbia’s Information and Privacy Commissioner recommended that all B.C. police departments implement policies to limit the type of non-conviction information made available; the police throughout the province endorsed it. Now, efforts are being made towards bringing it into legislation.

It appears the provinces and the police are recognizing that someone’s mental health history does not offer any indication of a person’s integrity or safety risk. 

If those who are charged to serve and protect recognize this, shouldn’t those whom they are charged to protect recognize it as well?  

Carolyn Dewa is a health economist and head of CAMH’s Centre for Research on Employment and Workplace Health in Toronto. For more information visit www.camh.ca.

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