The importance of good data has gained more attention in recent years and has brought us to an age of using evidence to improve the quality of systems and services. We know that the absence of data prevents organizations, big and small, from providing the most effective solutions to any given problem.
From world poverty to community treatment programs, data provides the information needed to address specific elements of broader issues. Without it, we operate on assumptions and rely on systems that are often outdated and inefficient. Data gives us the information to understand whom we are serving and how best to serve them.
The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) has noted the importance of collecting both quantitative and qualitative data to improve equitable service delivery and programs. The OHRC supports the collection and analysis of human rights-based data, consistent with the Ontario Human Rights Code and Canada’s human rights legislative framework.1 This includes race-based data to address disproportionate incidents of discrimination amongst certain racial and ethnic groups in various settings.
Although the topic of race is sensitive and often not adequately addressed, we know that racial inequities exist across public and private sectors. For example, in the justice system, we have some data telling us that there is an over representation of African-Caribbean and Indigenous men in our prisons and forensic mental health facilities, yet there seems to be a lack of corresponding programs to attempt to contend with those facts.
It is important to use the data we have and make links to other available data in order to make progress in addressing these very real and persistent systemic inequities.
“We do have some data,” says Dr. Branka Agic, Manager of Health Equity at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. “Though it may not be perfect, we shouldn’t wait to have perfect data to begin addressing these issues.”
If we already know that a disproportionate number of Black African-Caribbean and Indigenous men are incarcerated in our criminal justice system and possibly also admitted to our forensic mental health system, then it is imperative to find out why that is the case. We need to put a finer point on how racialized groups are being generally underserved in our communities in order to understand their presence in our criminal justice and forensic mental health systems.
Agic suggests looking at how health data intersects with the justice system in helping to identify potential points of unnecessary strain on both systems. She indicates that research findings show a 60% increase in the incidence of serious mental health problems such as psychosis among Caribbean origin immigrants to Ontario compared to the general population. There are several international studies showing that African-Caribbean groups are over represented in police-accompanied visits to emergency rooms.2 They may also be referred for in-patient services in forensic mental health facilities more often than others of white European-descent. Researchers found that “certain groups are overrepresented in secure psychiatric units in the United Kingdom and the United States. Rates of admission to forensic psychiatric hospitals for people of African or Caribbean origin are 5.6 times that of White males and 3 times that of White females in the United States. This may reflect high rates of imprisonment, differences in the type or amount of offending.”3 This kind of information makes the case for acquiring more robust and detailed data on the subject in order to develop sound evidence-based policies to improve the situation.
All service providers need to do a better job of advocating for mandatory data collection across all public service sectors so that we can alleviate these counterproductive systemic inequities. By overlooking a portion of the population that is already disadvantaged in several ways, our public systems are not meeting their obligations to provide quality care and well-being to all Ontarians.
In keeping with its anti-racism strategy the Ontario government passed Bill 114 in 2017. The Anti-Racism Act is aimed at eliminating systemic racism and advancing racial equality. A large part of this new legislation is focused on establishing “data standards that provide for the collection, use and management of information, including personal information, to identify and monitor systemic racism and racial disparities.” This is a very promising development, as it will produce more useful information to assist public institutions in providing equal and equitable service to all populations.
Seble Makonnen is a Policy Analyst at the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario.
1 Ontario Human Rights Commission. (n.d.). Count me in! Collecting human rights based data – Summary (fact sheet). Retrieved from http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/count-me-collecting-human-rights-based-data-summary-fact-sheet.
2 Flora, N. et al (2012). Pathways to Forensic Mental Health Care in Toronto: A Comparison of European, African-Caribbean, and other Ethnoracial Groups in Toronto. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 57 (7), 414 – 421. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177%2F070674371205700704
3 Ibid, 415.