A Yellowknife woman with a mental illness agreed to a psychiatric assessment to bolster her case for workplace accommodations, but says she never expected her “most personal, private and sensitive information” to wind up in the hands of her employer.
CBC News has agreed to protect the woman’s identity.
The former employee with the N.W.T. government says her work environment was harmful to her health, and her employer had ignored multiple notes from her doctor on how to accommodate her illness.
She wanted to be transferred to a different department. When her doctor suggested she undergo a psychiatric assessment to strengthen her case, she agreed.
She thought her doctor would send a letter to her employer after the assessment was complete, confirming that the work environment caused her anxiety, depression and undue stress.
Instead, she says she found out that her doctor had attached the full report to the letter.
"It was a huge betrayal of trust," she says. "It was the most personal, private and sensitive information."
The three-page report included details about how much she drank, her sexual past, how many sexual partners she'd had, her mental health diagnosis, her prescriptions and how she felt about her employer.
How the letter, and the report, arrived at the N.W.T. government’s human resources department is disputed. The woman says the clinic sent the report, despite assurances that it would not be shared.
The physician and a support staff member with the Yellowknife Health and Social Services Authority tell a different story. They suggested that the woman herself must have delivered the letter by hand, knowing what was in it, though the woman vehemently denies this. They also say that if they did send it, it was with the woman’s full consent and knowledge.
“It is, frankly, impossible to figure out what exactly happened here,” writes Elaine Keenan Bengts, the territory’s information and privacy commissioner, who reviewed a complaint made by the woman in August 2012.
But Keenan Bengts concludes that clear procedures should be established to prevent such cases in the future.
Doctor failed to recognize the danger: privacy commissioner
Keenan Bengts also says she was struck by the doctor’s “apparent lack of appreciation as to the impact even the possibility of the disclosure of psychiatric information might have on an individual.”
The doctor told Keenan Bengts he had verbal consent to disclose the report to the woman’s employer.
The woman said that even if she had given her consent, she'd expect any physician "worth his salt" to caution her against doing so.
Six months after the report was received, the woman was laid off. She said she believes the report played a role in her employer's decision.
She also said that after she found out the report had been sent, the human resources department of her workplace returned the documents to her immediately, and staff assured her that all copies had been destroyed.
Sharing mental health records 'a form of psychological rape’
Dr. Chris Summerville, a board member on the Mental Health Commission of Canada and chair of the Manitoba Schizophrenia Society, said this is a case that should never have happened.
"A person should not have to go and get a psychiatric report to demonstrate that they need workplace accommodation: accommodation is necessary for many people in the workplace, including people with mental illnesses,” he said.
Summerville said incidents where mental health information is made public can lead people with a mental illness to withdraw from society.
“It's a form of psychological rape. And I know those are strong words, but let's just call it for what it is."
Woman has avoided mental health treatment for 2 years
The Yellowknife woman said she hasn't sought any mental health care in the two years since the incident, because she has received no assurance from the physician or the territorial Department of Health that anything has changed.
That doesn’t surprise Summerville.
"If she feels that she did not give permission for the release of that information and is not believed, that adds to the violation, emotionally and psychologically," he said.
In a letter of response to the commissioner's recommendations, the Yellowknife Health and Social Services Authority says it has improved training on the disclosure of health information to third parties.
That's not enough to restore the woman's faith in the system.
"I don't think that doctors really understand how hesitant people are to pursue mental health care," she said.
"The waiting lists are horrible. And to put up one more barrier, and fear, of this magnitude, and not correct it? It's not OK."