Thank you for having me here.
First things first. I will let you know who I am and about the organization I represent.
If I speak fast at any time, please do ask me to slow down.
I'm from the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario. We are a non-profit, charitable organization. Our constituency is individuals, families, and communities who are affected by schizophrenia and psychotic illnesses. In those terms, we are the largest organization representing that population in Ontario.
Through our justice and mental health program, we often hear about instances of individual clients and family members who come to us because they have a number of issues, not only mental health issues but also when they come in contact with the criminal justice system. Working with those cases, we become aware of a lot of the barriers and challenges people encounter when they're dealing with both of these situations.
In respect of Bill C-43, we also learned a while ago that compounding that is the immigration consequences of criminalization. So you're not only having to deal with the mental health system and the criminal justice system, you're also having to deal with the immigration consequences if you come into contact with the latter.
We often find that there is a general awareness of what mental health does and what mental illnesses mean for individuals.
I will take you through a very brief overview to contextualize why mental health is an important factor to consider in the context of this bill.
First and foremost, there is no such thing as a monolithic mental illness. There is a plethora of different conditions and symptoms, and everybody experiences it individually.
Mental illnesses are very prevalent, as I'm sure everybody here knows. They affect quite a huge chunk of the population. The most conservative statistic is one in five. About 2.5% could be considered serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, conditions that are really quite devastating for both the individual and the family when folks are not doing well.
Mental illnesses are episodic in nature and are what we call invisible disabilities. When people come into the immigration system, when they're dealing with officials, it's really hard to pick up who has a mental illness and who does not, because, again, often it's not visible. People do not often disclose it because of the stigma and the shame they may feel are associated with their conditions.
What we also know about mental health is that for many of the immigrant and newcomer groups, their mental health is exacerbated not only by the trauma of coming here, for instance, as refugees, but also through dealing with the immigration process and the stress that comes about when they're filing applications and not understanding the process, not understanding the language. There are also unique circumstances where people come from different cultures and have a different understanding of what it is to be mentally ill. They may not fully understand how the Canadian mental health system works, and they may not fit into the same definitions of mental illnesses that we have, so they do not seek treatment or they hide the condition and hence often fall through the cracks of the mental health system. Unfortunately, they often do come into contact with the criminal justice system.
Over the last 10 years, we have witnessed the proportion of people with mental illnesses in the criminal justice system here in Canada skyrocket. You have only to look at our prison populations, in both the provincial jails as well as federal institutions, to see that a large number of individuals have either diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health issues.
We have a government that has put forward the first national mental health strategy, for which we applaud them, yet we still have a long way to go to understand how mental health and mental illnesses play a role in every single policy and legislative area in Canada.
To go back to mental illness and criminal involvement, the relationship between the two is quite complex, but what we do know is that after de-institutionalization back in the 1960s, the mental health services pulled out. What we see now is that more people are being picked up the criminal justice system because our mental health system and addiction systems are so fragmented and so uncoordinated among themselves.
Often, people come into contact with the law for what we call minor crimes, such as uttering threats or being a nuisance, or just being extremely visible in the community where they live and making people uncomfortable. Some of them do commit violent, serious crimes, but oftentimes it is associated with an untreated mental illness. When people get the treatment and support they need, they are able to function and to lead full, productive lives.
Within the criminal justice system, we have mechanisms for picking up and diverting those individuals who need extra support. We're not seeing that in the immigration system. Hence, we have very serious concerns about the implications of Bill C-43, in particular for our population of individuals and families who have very serious mental health issues and unique needs that often are not acknowledged in an immigration setting. They do not come into play when people are considering applications for permanent residency, refugee claims, or not being deported from Canada.
In 2010 we did research to look at these issues in more detail to understand what was going on and to try to come up with solutions to make sure that folks were not falling through the cracks in the system. What we found was that our immigration system does not consistently take into account the mental health conditions of the appellants and the deportees.
We also know that mental health needs are not being considered from the perspective of what's going to happen to individuals should they be deported to their countries of origin. People are often deported to countries where mental health systems are non-existent. The services are not available, are inaccessible, or are inadequate. At the same time, the stigma associated with mental health conditions in those countries is quite prevalent, and people are subject to human rights violations. We dealt with one case just recently. An individual was sent back to Jamaica and was set on fire. I'm putting it out there, because we see these things almost on a daily basis. It's really hard to disconnect what you see in the paper about the crime the person may have committed from the individual behind it and his or her family.
I'm going to walk you briefly through some of the major findings of our research as they pertain to the consideration of Bill C-43.
First, we're finding that people with mental health issues often do not have the same access to justice as many other individuals. That starts when they come into contact with the criminal justice system. Oftentimes they deal with lawyers, if they're able to access one, due to the cost and other considerations, who are not trained to represent individuals with mental illnesses. They do not understand how mental illness came into play in their conviction or when they committed the offence. They are often advised to plead to a greater charge, because the advice given by lawyers is that if they go down the mental health route, they may be in a mental health institution for much longer. Many individuals make the choice to do that, on the advice of the lawyer.
At the same time, we know that when they get to the immigration system, it's really hard to get quality legal representation from lawyers who really understand how to address a client's mental health concerns and how mental health plays a role. We find individuals who may have filed an application and mental health was never flagged. They get to the point where they have exhausted all other avenues and they are deported. Only after the fact does someone say, wait, it may have been a mental illness situation.
Another thing we've seen is that often people are asked to provide proof of their mental illness. They are requested to provide psychiatric assessments and to follow through with quite stringent medication regimens or a regimen of seeing a doctor. For anybody who has ever dealt with the mental health system, it's quite an insurmountable barrier, because often it takes about six to 18 months just to see a psychiatrist for one assessment. For immigration purposes, the cost associated with providing a psychiatric assessment is quite high. It ranges from $1,500 to $3,000. The lawyer does not pay that. The onus is put back on the individual.
Again, that evidence is not being considered in immigration circumstances, and people are not able to fully express what their needs are, what their circumstances may have been, why they committed the crime, or why they need special consideration under the immigration—