DHS adds stigma to mental health issues

When it comes to somethings, I still go old school, and one of those things includes getting a daily summary of SlashDot highlights. In one of these quick summaries of all that’s new, I stumbled across a story that broke me on many levels. Here is the summary from SlashDot:

[Trigger Warning: Story discusses problems faced by woman with depression.]

Jah-Wren Ryel writes
In 2012, Canadian Ellen Richardson was hospitalized for clinical depression. This past Monday she tried to board a plane to New York for a $6,000 Caribbean cruise. DHS denied her entry, citing supposedly private medical records listing her hospitalization. From the story: ‘“I was turned away, I was told, because I had a hospitalization in the summer of 2012 for clinical depression,’’ said Richardson, who is a paraplegic and set up her cruise in collaboration with a March of Dimes group of about 12 others.

If you read through the linked article you’ll learn that Ms Richardson was denied access to the USA because in 2012 she was hospitalized for depression and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would only clear her for entry into the USA if one of three specific doctors in the Toronto region gave her a psychological exam and provided her medical clearance. She learned this at the airport.

This bothers me for several reasons. Let’s just start with the fact that people who have mental health issues need to be supported and encouraged to seek medical care with the same sincerity and understanding that you would give someone who has a chronic illness like MS, epilepsy, or asthma that just sometimes requires care you can’t get at home. They do not need to be stigmatized as dangerous like a terrorist.

If it becomes widely known that DHS is denying visas to people with past mental health issues, it could deeply discourage people around the world from seeking the help they need. From normally glob-trotting new moms with serious post-pardem depression suffering silently, to the PTSD suffering war refugee who wants to someday join family members in the US hiding his pain, I can see people who need help opting not to seek it because getting that help might prevent them from doing their travel heavy jobs or seeking a better life in the company of their brothers and sisters.

Letting it be known that mental health issues can stop someone from entering the USA only means that those able to hide the worst effects of their illnesses will hide their illness (possibly getting worse) rather then getting the treatment they need to heal most quickly.

This also adds even more to the stigma of mental illness. We’re talking about a tourist visa here. A Canadian tourist. A Canadian paraplegic tourist who was denied a visa because in the past she was hospitalized for depression. Somehow the DHS accessed her private medical records without her permission and deemed her unfit to spend her tourism dollars in America. The clear message is: if you have had to or opted to seek medical care for mental illness than you must be dangerous; terrorist dangerous. If people start to think you’re as dangerous as a terrorist if you need residential help for mental illness, that will further drive people to not seek help for fear of the stigma. This includes the stigma they will level at themselves.

What also bothers me is I don’t know how this applies to US citizens like me.

I’m a frequent traveler with Global Entry and I’ve done things like go to modern day China (3x) and Soviet Era Russia & Siberia (then parts of the USSR) as an exchange student. I’ve dated people with clearance. I have friends with clearance. I have family members who’ve worked at Los Alamos and other places requiring all manner of clearance that makes it so I can’t even say which family members they are. Any one of these things would get my name in some agency’s database. All of them combined mean I probably get regularly pinged by computers that I suspect track everything from my credit rating to my tweets. This is the age we live in. What’s online belongs to everyone, and even if it’s locked behind a password it’s fair game to the US Government.

What I hadn’t suspected was that NSA and DHS could also be tracking someone’s medical records. I understand that the scrutiny that foreigners under go when they enter the USA is greater than that the citizens experience. Currently, it’s very fuzzy what aspects of my day-to-day life can be monitored. This means I honestly don’t know if the NSA or any other entity can access my medical records without me signing a HIPPA release form. I don’t know if something I already signed gives them permission and I never realized it. All this has me wondering, at what point are we going to find people who have ever had a prescription to prozac are unable to fly without additional scrutiny? At what stage is a soldier recovering from the hell of war going to be denied his flight to a mountaintop vacation because he’s deemed too mentally unwell to fly the friendly skies?

I don’t know where this is going. I don’t know what I can do to learn more about this or to affect change in these rules. The only thing I know is I will stop recommending that academic conferences occur in the United States. Those of us who have survived to the PhD are often broken, and I don’t want to find out through a denied visa which of my strong and brilliant colleagues was once hurting so much they sought help.

8 Comments

  1. Jeff Dahn November 30, 2013 at 8:17 pm #

    This is a scary situation on so many levels. Why does DHS have access to the private medical records of a Canadian citizen? That alone conjures up a dismaying picture of what is has on it’s own people.
    I’m a Vietnam vet, and if PTSD did ever rear its ugly head, I would be hesitant to seek treatment for it, lest I be targeted by the Government.
    I was prescribed Bupropion (Wellbutrin) as an aid to quit smoking. As it’s also prescribed as an anti-depressant, does this also place me on some government hit list?
    We are increasingly under scrutiny by our government for no reason that I can see other than Machiavellian attempts to further subjugate us. I’ve about had it.

  2. Otha Z. E. Lohse December 1, 2013 at 1:11 am #

    I was denied a US passport because I don’t drive. No other stated reason.

    I was told that, as with a driver’s license, a university ID is considered more legitimate by the State Department than a state-issued identification card. Never mind that I have a social security number, never mind that I have twenty years of work history, and never mind that the State Department’s guidelines state plainly that a state-issued ID is legitimate. I was even warned by the post-office guy who handles passport applications. He told me that any application that doesn’t have a driving endorsement on the ID is automatically rejected, and it’s been this way since 2008. And the State Department’s solution to my problem? Ask for a record of every single residence I’ve lived in since I was born and every job I’ve ever held. For me, that’s actually a nearly impossible task.

    It seems to me that the DHS and the State Department are looking for any reason possible to limit travel for certain people, even if it means bending and abandoning their own rules. As appalling as it is to think that Ellen Richardson was denied entry into the US as a form of discrimination based on her history of mental health issues, from researching my own predicament, I see it as simply a systemic anti-travel policy drawn on certain demographic distinctions (that is, a more generic and broad form of discrimination). For instance, I highly doubt that someone who was explicitly wealthy would be denied any travel privileges by the DHS or State Department, even if they’d been institutionally treated for mental health issues. Within this same logic, I’ve known several people since 2008 who have never had a driving endorsement on their identification (urban bike-hipsters, the lot of ‘em), but had no trouble getting a passport. The common thread? A combination of either current college enrollment or massive college debt, and parents with great income. I have none of that.

    I know that these two issues only fit a correlative pattern, and can scarcely be conflated on totally solid grounding. I get that. Unfortunately, I see a lot of other DHS, NSA, and State Department patterns that point to things like class-corralling and minimizing banal threats; id est “potential trouble-makers” or “unwanted participants”. Non-corporately employed journalists are finding this out first hand, especially if they cover “sensitive” topics (such as NSA privacy abuses, et cetera). People like Chris Hedges are afraid to even enter an airport, for fear of being detained (or worse), for no other reason than being a whistle-blowing journalist.

    Again, I’m not entirely conflating all of this, but I am saying that there’s evidence for a pattern beyond mental health discrimination.

  3. Bill Hunsicker December 1, 2013 at 1:16 am #

    This is another example of our federal government overreacting to a real threat and punishing the innocent along with the guilty. We need real change, not the fake change we have been promised.

    Our government is running out of control and it may be too late to reign it back in.

  4. Eric December 1, 2013 at 1:19 am #

    The DHS agent made the call based on 911 records. If that’s acceptable now, citizens using 911 may not realize they are incidentally building up data for disqualification when they make a call to save a life.

  5. Claudia December 1, 2013 at 1:32 am #

    Oh great. Disincentive to call emergency services. That’s all we need.

  6. Melanie December 1, 2013 at 5:59 am #

    As a non-American and living outside of America looking I wonder where DHS fits in the DSM V. Is there a classification for organisational paranoia?

  7. Chris Bamford December 3, 2013 at 3:41 am #

    This is what happens when decision makers are promoted for not making mistakes. (instead of being achievers)

    At best, you get an autocratic fool, who is happy to use the big red “NO” stamp, and disrupt the lives of good people, unnecessarily, on a totally arbitrary point.
    On that arbitrary point, I am friends with many people who now have, and many more, who have, in the past, had clinical depression – all good people. Perhaps I should be excluded from entering the US, because I associate with a class of people associated with insanity. (Lets use the non “political correctness” speak here)

    At worst, it could go anywhere.

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