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I have been working with people who are living with mental illness for more than 20 years and I have seen a lot of changes over this time.
When I started out working in this area, most of my knowledge was based on “book learning” and I'll admit there was much about the reality of lived experience of mental illness that I did not understand.
I had to be open to challenging my own preconceptions and biases around mental illness and the people I worked with gave me a far greater education than any course I studied at university. One of the biggest lessons during the early years was around the level of stigmatization that people felt about their illness and very few felt safe enough to talk openly in our society about their experiences for fear of rejection, judgment and the potential loss of employment. While we have come a long way in recent years, the fear about the impact of being open about mental illness in the workplace continues to remain a challenge for many.
An incident that made the news a couple of weeks ago gives an indication that we may be finally turning the corner in how we look at mental health in the workplace. On May 8, police in Ottawa issued an alert around Supreme Court Justice Clement Gascon, who had gone missing, and the alert was cancelled shortly after. Little was made about the event until the week after when Justice Gascon issued a public statement in which he revealed that over the past 20 years, he had been dealing with the impact of depression and anxiety and that the event of the previous week had been precipitated by a change in medication and stress over his decision to retire from the Supreme Court, leading to a panic attack and his decision to remain out of touch for hours.
His frank and open acknowledgement of his mental illness is unprecedented in this country where it has been standard practice in the past for any Supreme Court justices who revealed they were suffering from a mental illness to be forced to resign immediately. In this case, Chief Justice Richard Wagner took a different approach, offered his support for his colleague and reaffirmed his continued involvement in the court as usual until his retirement in September.
If such a change can happen at the highest levels of our justice system, there is hope for the rest of our society.
It was refreshing to see how Chief Justice Wagner recognized that a mental health incident should be treated no differently that a physical health incident and that once treatment for this illness is applied, the person is able and ready to return to work.
In the aftermath of this event, there were many on social and other media who questioned this decision and stated they did not feel that someone with mental illness is fit to act as a judge. They have completely missed the point and, as in legal matters, I would encourage them to check the facts. Justice Gaston has been living with mental illness for 20 years and during that time did his job well enough, and was widely enough respected by his colleagues, that he was selected to serve on the highest court in our nation. If his mental illness made him unfit for his position, he would never have been able to rise to the position of leadership he attained; the only thing that has changed is that he now feels able to be honest about his health instead of feeling he needs to hide his health status.
If such a change can happen at the highest levels of our justice system, there is hope for the rest of our society. One of the things that I have learned over the years is that, like Justice Gascon, the vast majority of those who live with mental illness function very well, hold jobs and contribute to our economy and society. When and if they get sick, society should support them getting well and returning to work without judgment for their type of illness. It’s how they do their job that matters, not whether their illness is depression or cancer.
Brian Hodder is an LGBTQ2 activist and works in the field of mental health and addictions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.