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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.