As someone who campaigns against stigma and discrimination regarding mental illness, I would like to share with you a letter I received recently from Eileen O’Hara in Manchester. It is self-explanatory. Like many people, Eileen has been reluctant to talk about her own experience of mental illness, but feels she has to speak out against the discrimination she feels has been shown in the following story. I’d be interested to hear from others if you have had similar experience, so that the mental health charities can perhaps take this up as an issue which needs re-examining. And many thanks to Eileen for getting involved in the Time to Change campaign.
‘I was diagnosed with Bi-Polar Disorder in April 2009. I am writing to you because you have pledged your support for the Time to Change campaign and something that I really feel needs to change is the police attitude to mental health issues. Let me explain.
The treatment I received for this condition included a month spent in the Glenbourne Mental Health Unit in Plymouth. In November 2010 I was discharged back to the care of my GP, as my psychiatrist and the local community mental health team judged my mental health to be stable.
At no point during this period was I violent to myself or others – in fact, I have never been –. I do not have a criminal record as far as I am aware.
In June 2010 I applied to be a Befriender with the mental health charity Making Space, which is based in Warrington, Cheshire. I wanted to put my experience to good use in supporting others with mental health problems. Making Space asked me for a Criminal Records Bureau check, and so I made an application. When I received my CRB in August 2010 I was shocked by what Devon & Cornwall Police had stated in the ‘Any other relevant information’ section:
Devon & Cornwall Constabulary holds information concerning Eileen Mary O’Hara, born 17 January 1959, that may be relevant to this application:
DEVON & CORNWALL CONSTABULARY ARE AWARE THAT IN 2009 EILEEN MARY O’HARA WAS A PATIENT OF THE GLENBOURNE MENTAL HEALTH UNIT IN PLYMOUTH; WE ARE NOT AWARE WHETHER SHE HAS ANY CURRENT MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES, OR WHETHER SHE PRESENTS A RISK TO VULNERABLE CHILDREN OR ADULTS.
Since when did having a period of mental illness qualify as a crime or even ‘relevant information’ for a potential employer? Do any other medical conditions warrant inclusion in a CRB?
Fortunately, this CRB did not affect the decision of Making Space about whether to use me as a Befriender. Nor did it hinder my employment in November 2010 under the Future Jobs Work scheme with a youth music project in Manchester. But as I was asked again about my CRB and again had to reveal my medical history, I decided to challenge what the Devon & Cornwall police had written. As a result, and after checking the facts, they amended my CRB by adding:
IN NOVEMBER 2010 IN DIRECT RESPONSE TO A POLICE ENQUIRY, EILEEN O’HARA’S COMMUNITY MENTAL HEALTH TEAM DETAILED THAT MS O’HARA’S MENTAL HEALTH WAS STABLE AND THAT SHE HAS BEEN DISCHARGED FROM SECONDARY MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES BACK TO THE CARE OF HER GP.
Despite this, on 9 May 2011 I was turned down for a new job on the basis of what Devon & Cornwall police had decided was ‘relevant’ to my CRB.
I am appalled and distressed that despite having no criminal record and no history of violence, an episode of mental illness is now officially recorded by the police and will follow me around forever, potentially blighting my employment prospects and otherwise restricting my freedom. It is clearly discriminatory and reflects the police’s prejudice and lack of understanding, not any ‘risk’ that I might pose.
I have since learnt that there is no way of erasing this record. The Information Commissioner not only has no power over what the police deem relevant to include in a CRB but, in a test case, actually overruled the complainant in the police’s favour. Quite simply, if the police deem the information to be relevant then it is. To be officially labeled in this way without a right of appeal seems to me to be a clear breach of both the Equality Act (2010) and my human rights.
I have also learnt that I am not alone in suffering this discrimination – many people who have experienced episodes of mental ill-health have it recorded on their CRBs. But a legal challenge would be long and costly and no one, not even MIND, has summoned up the will to take it on. Needless to say, my own struggle to get this reference to my medical history taken off my CRB has had a bad effect on my health. I feel an unanswerable government agency simply has unwarranted control over a vital area of my life.
I really feel this whole issue of CRBs needs a complete rethink. To allow the current situation to continue, where mental illness is seen on a par with criminal acts, makes a mockery of recovery and rehabilitation. All the work that MIND, Time to Change and you are doing will be wasted if, when it comes to moving on, we service users are stopped in our tracks by arbitrary statements by officials that cannot be challenged and that wreak havoc in our lives – lives we have struggled to re-build, only to be knocked down again.
I am now unemployed and have been referred back to mental health services because of the effect of this battle. I almost feel that I might as well have not bothered trying to get better. So, as a Time to Change ambassador and a former Mind Champion of the Year, I really hope you will give your voice to this issue.