The Home Office just made ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ for the mentally ill

In the past I’ve thought about killing myself quite a bit. In fact, I’ve even tried it a few times.

That I’m happy to write about it online tends to shock people. Whenever I’ve asked them why, they usually reply with variations on: “Well, it’s just such private information” or “It’s not the kind of thing one should broadcast.” But I choose to be so vocal about my mental health struggles because nearly nine out of ten people like me say that stigma and discrimination have a negative effect on their lives.

This matters because over the weekend, the Home Office updated guidelines for police disclosure of mental health crises in background checks. The general effect is to make it less likely that police will disclose mental health information when a Disclosure and Barring Service (formerly CRB, or Criminal Records Bureau) check is performed.

But whilst this has been welcomed as a positive change, it threatens to exacerbate mental health stigma and discrimination.

As the Home Office minister Karen Bradley said: “Information relating to mental ill health can have a significant impact on the lives of those concerned, including their employment opportunities.”

While it’s positive that the Home Office acknowledges employer prejudiced against mentally ill people, there is a serious negative here. The new guidelines avoid tackling the real problem of workplace discrimination against mentally ill people, instead opting to make secrecy easier.

Because the the Home Office are encouraging secrecy instead of openness, they are encouraging stigma. The new Disclosure and Barring Service protocol equates to the mental health equivalent of the American military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which until 2011 allowed gay or bisexual people to join the military only on the condition that they kept their sexuality a secret.

Consider that if you broke your arm, you wouldn’t worry about employers finding out. Yet because of the shame attached to mental illnesses, people often hide conditions like depression from their boss. And most wouldn’t dream of disclosing a previous mental health crisis on their job applications.

Alistair Burt, community and social care minister, said that the move was made because “having a mental illness is not a crime.” Yet under the new advice, only those who have suffered serious mental breakdowns will have their history disclosed by Disclosure and Barring Service. The result of this is that said individuals will now be even less likely to find employment because, to prejudice employers, they will be the “craziest of crazies”.

In Britain even our language criminalizes the mentally ill. Despite the effects of the Suicide Act 1961, we continually refer to taking your own life as the offence of “committing suicide”. The inference of this is that people like me are criminals, instead of vulnerable people needing care.

And only recently was it made illegal for employers to discriminate against people on the grounds of their mental health, with the 2010 Equality Act. If discrimination against women in the workplace is anything to go by, this law still won’t be upheld properly in fifty years time. But that’s no reason to make the situation worse.

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If you are experiencing feelings of depression or have suicidal thoughts, you can ring Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90, find the phone number of a local branch on their website or email jo@samaritans.org.

You can also call mental health charity Mind’s helpline on 0300 123 3393 for advice – they can advise you on where to seek help and provide information about medication and types of mental health problems.

J. C. Servante

J. C. Servante

Freelance writer, reviewer and blogger. Politically speculative. Can be found at donkeyokay.com

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