The census deals bluntly with mental illness

After spending close to seven weeks in hospital following a nearly successful suicide attempt in 2010, the federal government might put me in jail if I don’t tell them about it.

As a resident of one of the 1 in 4 Canadian households to receive an access code for the mandatory long-form census this week, I was particularly miffed by question 11 (e), which asked whether I have any “emotional, psychological or mental health conditions (e.g., anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, substance abuse, anorexia, etc.).”

Why is this anyone’s business but my own?

In my case, I’ve made a conscious decision over the last five years to talk about my experiences openly to spark national discussions about depression, suicide, and mental healthcare.

I’ve done this because I wanted to and have been ready to do so—not because of a fear of prosecution.

But with the return of the mandatory long-form census, Canadians get no such luxury. From mental health diagnoses to domestic situations to home repairs, there are few secrets when the data collectors come knocking.

The previous Conservative government made the long-form census a voluntary survey in 2011, which was swiftly skewered by the left as something of an attack on science. I preferred to think of it as “taking on Big Data,” but I digress.

Contrary to most people’s assumptions, the move didn’t save money—the voluntary National Household Survey actually cost more to administer—but was a bold stand against the coercive intrusion of government into our lives.

It was an investment in liberty, which is an ever-dwindling commodity.

“But it’s confidential!”, census advocates proclaim.

Confidentiality and anonymity are not the same, however, especially considering the unique identifying code on each census, and the requirement to fill out one’s name, phone number, and email and residential addresses.

It might not be public record, but my name will be connected to my responses in a government database indefinitely.

If the federal government is going to ignore any right to privacy that Canadians may hold, why not just seize our health records?

If accurate data trumps the right to privacy, the government could easily amend the Statistics Act to require hospitals and mental healthcare practitioners to turn over a list of names of Canadians dealing with the aforementioned conditions.

Home health retailers can submit a list of anyone who has ever purchased canes, wheelchairs or walkers, so Canadians don’t have to answer question 11 (c), which asks about “difficulty walking.”

Though it may sound McCarthy-esque, there is no difference between the government putting such a requirement on institutions versus threatening prosecution—three months of jail time and/or a $500 fine—to individual Canadians who won’t put their own names on such lists.

Despite the awareness campaigns and widespread discussions about mental illness, it is still very much stigmatized—especially within certain families.

Because the census is a household survey, rather than an individual survey, the question can ‘out’ someone to a judgmental family member, or be answered incorrectly by an oblivious roommate.

For that matter, the question doesn’t even define the conditions it forces Canadians to disclose. Though it is a document purportedly integral to data accuracy, there is a great deal of room for subjectivity.

It’s unsurprising the census doesn’t ask about paranoia, because Big Brother is, indeed, watching.

-Lawton is the host of the Andrew Lawton Show on AM980 in London, Ont.


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