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Ottawa Citizen outs mentally ill man

On Saturday the Ottawa Citizen ran a story called Pleas to help mentally ill son ignored, mother says. It was in Hugh Adami’s column, The Public Citizen.

Complete with names and a photograph, this article provides detailed personal information about a 22-year-old man who lives in Ottawa’s shelter system. The information was supplied by his mother.

The young man was quoted by Adami as saying he didn’t want his story in the paper. And yet there it is: his suicide attempts, his drug use, his paranoid schizophrenia, his bipolar disorder, his behaviour problems as a child, his anger management problems, his doctors’ assessment of his current mental state, his brushes with the law, his rental history, his housekeeping shortcomings, everything. Right there with his name, photograph and height.

If his mother’s version of events is accurate, I can understand her frustration with the shortage of mental health resources available to her son. But does anyone else think that publishing this article was a flagrant violation of his privacy rights? Certainly there’s a valid point to made about mental health resources, but couldn’t this point have been made without  publicly identifying him?

Even if he manages to get his mental health issues under control with treatment, this article will probably haunt him for the rest of his life. Anybody who ever googles his name will learn personal and confidential information about his medical and psychiatric history.  This includes potential employers, potential landlords, acquaintances, neighbours and everybody else, forever.

It’s not right. And I can’t help but wonder if the Citizen would have published personal medical information about somebody who was not poor, homeless and mentally ill.


30 comments to Ottawa Citizen outs mentally ill man

  • Lalawawa

    oh ma oh man oh man…first off you know I have two disabled kids so I know how fine the line is between seeking help and overexposure….but I KNOW this woman in a business relationship and I now feel like I know too much. On the other hand now that I DO know, I can offer her more understanding and compassion…..but holy crap – I just don’t know what to think about the rest of it………

    • I’ve never been in her position, and I wouldn’t want to be. But I do appreciate your point about the fine line between seeking help and overexposure. I just think there must have been a way to tell the story and illuminate the problem without shining a spotlight directly into the personal life of one mentally ill individual who asked for privacy.

  • Sheila

    I agree; It’s not right. I work in residential support for developmentally disabled adults. Not long ago, my coworkers and I were shocked and angered to see a letter to the editor of our local newspaper that was written by the sister-in-law/co-guardian of one of the ladies we take care of. She was protesting the government cuts but she was also describing her sister-in-law in very personal and unflattering terms and since she shared the same surname it wouldn’t take a genius to know who she was describing. And there is not one thing we can do about it.

    • That’s appalling. I’m sure it must be legal, since the paper published it (both this article, and the letter to the editor in your community). I don’t think it’s ethical, and I don’t understand why it’s legal.

      If the 22-year-old man had had cancer, and his mother had gone to the media about not being able to find him life-saving treatment, would the Citizen have published a half-page story about his medical problems without his permission? Would it have been legal or ethical to do so? I don’t think so. So why is it legal to publish personal information, supplied by a relative, about people’s mental or developmental disabilities?

  • CeltChick

    How can this be legal?!? The gentleman asked for privacy; if a family member get all blabby about his business, he should still have some say about whether or how that gets published. At this point, the paper can’t even retract what was published–it’s out there forever, as you say. Did this fellow give up his rights to privacy by entering the shelter? That doesn’t seem at all right.

    • I think he gives up his rights (informally and unofficially, of course) by having a mental illness and thereby not ranking very high on the hierarchy of people whose rights are taken seriously.

  • Lalawawa

    I hadn’t even let my mind go to the legal vs illegal point yet, I’m still trying to process my “what would I do” reaction.

  • nasty business. gives the heebie-jeebies.

    they would have overshared on anyone if it would have sold stories. ethics when resource of readers shrinks, shrinks.

    • I’m not sure about that. I keep hearing a certain piece of information about a certain prime minister that never gets published, even though it’s apparently true, credible, provable and interesting. But it would be a violation of his personal privacy rights to publish it, and the Canadian media is supposedly above that kind of thing. Sometimes.

  • You might want to remove the linking to the article from this posting.

    With every link to it, the article’s Google ranking goes up.

  • reb

    I think there is a fine line.

    As the mother of 2 ‘learning challenged’ adults (one who is currently on the edge of creating harm for himself and others) I do get why she did it.

    The desperation of having ones child in crisis does make us do things that may seem irrational. If I thought putting our story in the media would help me keep my 23 yr old safe would I do it HELL YES

    • I can understand a mother acting out of desperation, and being willing to go to extremes to keep her son safe. But I don’t understand why the Citizen published it.

  • Gillian

    Do you ever forward your opinion to the writer of the article? You might further the discussion that way.

    • I didn’t forward it to him, but I figure there’s a good chance he’s aware of it. I’d really be interested in hearing his reasons for publishing the man’s name and photograph.

      • hulla

        You should comment on the article as well. Most of the people who have commented didn’t seem to pick up on that little point. It’s important to draw attention to it, imo.

  • future landfill

    Yeah, I thought the whole thing was a bit creepy when I saw it.

  • I’m glad I’m not the only one. :)

  • Richard McCarty

    You people are more worried about theoretical problems with identification, than with helping this person. Shame on you.

    • This goes well beyond identification and into branding. He is being publicly labeled as mentally ill and dangerous. I fail to see how he is being helped by publicizing his problems against his will.

    • lala

      As K’naan says “you can point a finger but there’s three pointing back”. We are discussing, we are thinking we are feeling…If there was something concrete we COULD do we’d be doing it.

    • Kathy

      I love how “shame on you” gets thrown around by people on the internet who don’t offer any solutions of their own. A writer is allowed to chose a focus. Zooms focus is on breach of privacy.

      • I wonder if anybody ever actually says “Shame on you” in real life. (I don’t think I’ve ever said it, either in real life or on the internet.)

  • By the way, somebody shared this post on reddit yesterday, where it enjoyed being the #1 post with the Ottawa tag. We got a big traffic spike and about 50 new subscribers. (Thank you to whoever posted it there, and a warm welcome to the new readers.)

  • DW

    I don’t know how going public helps him. The only way I can see is if the “negative” publicity of the ROMHC makes them bend the rules to see him into treatment. I put negative in quotes because they followed their policies, it sounds as if the mother wants to jump the queue for her son, perhaps playing off a “he’s a danger to the public” angle?

    Though ultimately he has to want to help himself, and going public with his story and especially including both his name and picture could only hinder that in the long run.

    OTOH, (playing my own devil’s advocate) if he hurts himself or someone else and ends up in jail (or dead) when he could have been helped, what is his long term outlook then? You have to get through today before you can worry about tomorrow, right?

    I don’t think it was a smart move of either the mother or the Citizen to allow it, but if it does somehow manage to help in the short term vs. the alternatives then why not?