We need to do more than #Talk about mental health, Bell – The Brock Press

This Wednesday is Bell Let’s Talk Day. You’re probably familiar with the initiative by now, it’s been running every year since 2011. If not, Bell Let’s Talk is a mental health awareness campaign created by Bell, the Canadian telecommunications company.

There are other parts of the campaign, but the one most people are familiar with is the one-day ad campaign where funds are raised based on social media and other telecom interactions. For every social media post or text sent the same day that includes “#BellLetsTalk,” Bell will donate a set amount (usually five cents per tagged post or message) to mental health initiatives across Canada.

It can be hard to talk about this campaign, especially when you have valid reviews for it. Of course, raising awareness is a good thing, as is reducing stigma and donating to charity. My criticisms of Bell Let’s Talk Day will never be aimed at the people posting the hashtags or taking the opportunity to share their personal mental health journey. My critics of the campaign will always be with the company.

At the heart of Bell Let’s Talk is advertising. While it’s true that when someone posts with the hashtag Bell donates to mental health initiatives, it’s also true that those hashtags contain the company’s name. When we think of advertising, we usually think of a company trying to sell us something. Much of the resistance to any criticism of Bell Let’s Talk comes from the fact that people don’t necessarily see the campaign as an advertisement; after all, they’re not overtly trying to sell us anything.

There are other reasons a business might want to run an advertising campaign beyond selling a specific product or service. Advertising is also a tool that can be used to alter public perception and generate goodwill. By putting its name to a massive mental health campaign, Bell is using advertising for this second reason. If we think of a company in a positive light, we are more likely to choose it when making a decision on where to buy, for example, a mobile phone plan.

So Bell Let’s Talk is advertising, but a lot of things are advertising. Can’t my criticisms of Bell Let’s Talk relate only to advertising? They aren’t, but advertising is a big part of that. Bell Let’s Talk Day encourages people to share their stories of mental health. These stories are often deeply personal and difficult to share, so it takes a lot of vulnerability and courage to do so. I can’t think of a better word to describe how it feels to see a hashtag advertised on one of these posts than “icky”. It feels like a company is using everyday people’s personal struggles and hardships to generate corporate goodwill, and that’s disgusting.

Along with the advertising element, there’s also the fact that it doesn’t really work. The campaign started when I was 10, and now, at 21, it doesn’t seem like it’s gotten much easier to be mentally ill in this country. Year after year, Bell Let’s Talk delivers messages focused on “reducing stigma”. That’s fine, I guess, but you can’t get out of a psychotic episode. You can’t convince psychiatric drugs to be cheaper or the health care system to be more accessible. It’s great that people feel more empowered and comfortable sharing the details of their own mental health, but when it comes to receiving treatment, have there really been substantial improvements to the continuation of this campaign?

Mental health and, to a lesser extent, mental illness have been de-stigmatized, but only partially. It’s normal to talk about a battle with depression or a particularly bad day with anxiety. It is relatively less acceptable to admit that you have to miss work or school to deal with these things, or to tell someone that you are on medication or that you need to be hospitalized (if you can even find access to these things). It’s okay to be mentally ill and talk about it, but when someone needs something more than a conversation, we always seem to be left behind.

A study published by a team of researchers from Sunnybrook Hospital and the University of Toronto found that while the initiative continues to receive record engagement, it was ineffective in preventing suicides at the local level.

So many campaigns and initiatives focused on mental health and mental illness barely scratch the surface. People post crisis lines on social media, they raise awareness and “encourage conversation”, but when it comes to real, tangible things that have been proven to reduce suicide and help people treat the disease mental, we fall flat on our stomachs.

To truly solve what has been called the “mental health crisis”, we need to dedicate resources to supporting people, we need to build communities that care for each other, we need to make health care accessible and helping people before they must use a crisis telephone line. We need to do more than #Talk, Bell.

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