Blue Line

Even cringing has an upside

April 3, 2014  By Dorothy Cotton

Cringe. I just HATE those really awkward moments.

I tend to (no surprise here) have a certain amount of sympathy for people with major mental illnesses. They are really god-awful disorders that take a major toll on those that have them and their families. It doesn’t help that most of us want to put our heads in the sand and ignore the topic – and then there is that whole stigma thing.

I often find myself out waving the flag for better treatment options, more respect and research, less discrimination, more social supports… but the world is not a simple place.

I was at a conference recently about police interactions with people with mental illnesses. It was full of mental health professionals, police peoples, policy wonks, researchers, people with mental illnesses and consumer groups. One person did not fit into any of these categories. She was a woman whose son had been killed by a person with a serious and untreated mental illness. Talk about awkward.


Don’t get me wrong; she was totally appropriate and made valid points – no venom or ranting. She simply said that while people with mental illnesses are victims in many ways, there are also other victims and they too should have rights.

I do not disagree but it left me – and others, I am quite certain – with the feeling that two airplanes had just collided over our heads and were crashing to the ground right where we stood. The fact is that sometimes, rights and principles collide. The rights of victims do not line up very well with the rights of the perpetrators.

Priorities also collide sometimes. Someone made the point during the conference that we need to teach mental health professionals more about public safety – and make them pay more heed to it.

NO, I say. Police and the criminal justice system are all about public safety but NOT health care. Oh sure, we do consider it in extreme cases. If someone is clearly heading off to hurt another person, we need to take action even if they are our patient or client. In the big scheme of things though, health care is about individual rights, not community safety – and policing is about public safety, not individual rights.

There is tension. I am good with that. We need it because the fact is the two sets of rights are sometimes at odds. The challenge is finding the balance. To have balance, there have to be people on each side – sort of like a tug-o-war.

People who work in the human rights area often face the same balance challenges. For example, we want to make all buildings accessible for people with mobility problems but if the cost would bankrupt a small business, do we still go ahead?

We want to hire immigrants and make sure they have the same opportunities as others, but if they do not speak the dominant language, must they be given a customer service job where no one can easily interact with them?

How about the person with trimethylaminuria (a disorder that makes one smell like rotting fish – and is not remedied by deodorant or bathing) versus a person who has a sensitivity to odors?

How do you choose between two people’s rights? We certainly do not expect blind people to be allowed to fly a plane; where do we draw the line between individual and collective rights?

What about the tension between the rights of an unborn child and a dying – or even technically dead – mother? What about the right of people who live in Quebec to deal with public servants not affiliated with any religious group versus freedom of religion?

Uh oh. Now we are treading on sensitive ground. I can see the tomatoes coming this way.

If you consider any of these issues to be simple and the answers clear, then you are rigid and unthinking (according to me, in my own rigid and unthinking manner), because they are not easy dilemmas. The Ontario Human Rights Commission even has a policy on competing rights. It notes:

<The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, provincial human rights legislation (including the Ontario Human Rights Code) and the courts recognize that no rights are absolute and no one right is more important than another right. Our laws guarantee rights such as freedom of expression as well as protection against discrimination and harassment based on gender, creed, sexual orientation and disability, among other grounds. They require we give all rights equal consideration. The law also recognizes that rights have limits in some situations where they substantially interfere with the rights of others.

The courts have said we must go through a process on a case-by-case basis to search for solutions to reconcile competing rights and accommodate individuals and groups, if possible. This search can be challenging, controversial and sometimes dissatisfying to one side or the other. But it is a shared responsibility and made easier when we better understand the nature of one another’s rights and obligations and demonstrate mutual respect for the dignity and worth of all involved. Finding the best solution for maximizing enjoyment of rights takes dialogue and even debate. i>

Meanwhile, back at the issue of people with mental illnesses versus victims, here’s my thoughts:

  1. Fortunately, there are not too many such victims since people with mental illnesses do not typically hurt anyone.
  2. Nevertheless, even one victim is five too many. If we were able to address mental illness more effectively, maybe there would be even fewer.
  3. People with mental illnesses are actually more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators – the categories are not distinct.
  4. Cringe as I might when I find myself in an awkward situation such as this one, in the end I appreciate the people and circumstances that make me cringe. If I am not cringing, then I am forgetting one side or the other. Seeing both sides ain’t easy, but it IS important.
  5. Also fortunately, the government is aware of the problem and while it has no magic answers, it does think about it – check out

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