Attempted suicide: Should police ever share this personal health information?
Remember Ellen Richardson’s story? She’s a Canadian citizen who was denied entry into the United States because of her history of mental illness.
When Ms. Richardson shared her story with the media, others came forward with experiences of discrimination based on their medical histories. The incidents highlight the pervasive prejudice faced by people with mental illness every day.
How are U.S. border guards getting access to personal health information in the first place? This question was the focus of the Information and Privacy Commissioner’s (IPC) report, Crossing the Line: The Indiscriminate Disclosure of Attempted Suicide Information to U.S. Border Officials via CPIC, that was released today.
When police are called to assist citizens during the crisis of attempted suicide, they are required to record this information in their local database. Recording incidents attended is standard and appropriate practice. This information can be helpful in preparing police if they respond to another call involving the same individual or address.
Difficulties can arise when police share the information beyond their local databases. They sometimes upload information related to attempted suicide to the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) database. Police forces across Canada can access this database. CPIC has information sharing agreements with other agencies, including U.S. Border Services. It appears that this is how U.S. Border Guards acquired access to Ms. Richardson’s mental health history.
While this information may help authorities if an individual has a crisis away from home, automatic disclosure to CPIC can have serious consequences. Acknowledging the need to balance privacy and safety, CAMH supports the IPC’s recommendation that suicide-related information should be disclosed to CPIC only under exceptional circumstances. These include instances when a person has a history of serious violence or when a suicide attempt involves threats of, or actual, serious violence directed towards others.
Suicide attempts are personal health information and authorities should not have access to personal health information. Ms. Richardson and others with a history of mental illness should be able to travel within and outside of Canada like other law abiding citizens.
Prejudice, fear and misunderstanding about mental illness remain pervasive and people like Ms. Richardson still have to fight for their rights every day.
At CAMH we are working for change -to open minds, change practices, and build a more inclusive society, with your help.
* Photo: Julep67 on Flickr