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Bell Let’s Talk Day sparked a conversation around mental health stigma. Is that still enough?

Seasonal affective disorder is more than just the winter blues
WATCH: Seasonal affective disorder is more than just the winter blues.

Social media feeds will soon be inundated with stories about people at their lowest mental lows, friends and family lost to suicide and messages urging people to seek help, telling them they’re not alone.

As it has done for the last nine years, on Jan. 29, Bell will donate five cents to mental health initiatives in Canada for every text (not iMessage) sent from a Bell customer’s phone, every tweet or retweet that includes #BellLetsTalk and every Snapchat sent using the company’s special filter.

As the stigma-busting campaign approaches its 10th anniversary, Jasmine Vido, whose 2019 master’s thesis at the University of Windsor is titled A critical investigation of Bell Let’s Talk, says that while the day itself remains useful, more than just conversation is needed in the fight to address poor mental health.

READ MORE: As a person of colour, it’s a struggle to find therapists who look like you

She’s one of many people who, for a variety of reasons, think it’s time for a new approach to improve care for the 20 per cent of Canadians who experience mental health problems in a given year.

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“So far, the concept of the current campaign has remained the same: social media users post about Bell, Bell donates money, everyone forgets about the campaign for a year, repeat, repeat, repeat,” Vido says.

“Yes, it helps with the stigma surrounding mental health for the day; however, more resources and services are needed now that the stigma is diminishing and now that there is a realization that there is a growing need for these mental health services.”

Vido and others wants to see the mental health conversations sparked by Bell Let’s Talk Day shift beyond stigma. They want us to zero in on barriers to accessing care, be it long wait-lists, the prohibitive cost of seeing a therapist or the phone-management system in Ontario prisons.

Half of Canadians will be living with or have lived with a mental illness by their 40th birthday. In Canada, it is one of the leading causes of disability — cutting a person’s life expectancy by up to 10 or 20 years.

Theo Fleury speaks about mental health in Kelowna
Theo Fleury speaks about mental health in Kelowna

Despite the prevalence of mental illness, half of Canadians responded to a 2008 survey saying they wouldn’t tell friends or co-workers that they have a mental illness. Perhaps because nearly 50 per cent said they believe people invoke the term to excuse poor behaviour and nearly one-third said the idea of being around someone living with a serious mental illness made them fearful.

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Stigma is what Bell said it wanted to help tackle in 2010 when it announced the Let’s Talk campaign, featuring Olympian Clara Hughes as its spokesperson. The public responded: Bell logged nearly 145,444,000 “interactions” in 2019, up from more than 66,000 in 2011.

Those texts and tweets have contributed more than $100 million to mental health initiatives, although how much is earmarked for each individual initiative isn’t always clear on the Let’s Talk site.

The growth of the campaign is such that it’s nearly impossible to avoid, says Vido, yet it still “doesn’t touch on any underlying structural issues.”

READ MORE: Canadian campuses desperately need better mental health services

Jacqueline Michelis, a spokesperson with Bell, did not respond to a question about how Bell’s campaign supports the push for systemic changes to the Canadian mental health-care system. However, in an email, she highlighted several recent partnerships, including the launch of a distance coaching service with the government in the Northwest Territories.

Society is “designed by and for people without mental illnesses,” per a 2013 report from the Mental Health Commission of Canada. And so, stigmatization gets baked into institutional policies and practices.

As a result, the report says, it’s no longer about one person’s response to a depression or bipolar diagnosis but about housing and employment discrimination. It’s about police officials disclosing mental-health-related information, like suicide attempts, as part of routine criminal record checks and “tough on crime” criminal justice reform that disproportionately impacts people suffering from mental illnesses.

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Even just anticipating that stigma, whether it’s fear that disclosing an illness will lead to shoddy or involuntary treatment, “may be especially problematic,” the report says. It’s an issue journalist Anna Mehler Paperny wrote about in her recent memoir, Hello I Want To Die Please Fix Me.

“People say, ‘Tell me if I can help with anything’; ‘You know you can call me any time, right?’ and don’t get me wrong: there are times I would reach out and feel truly heard, feel like I was grasping something solid for the first time in forever,” she wrote.

“But just as many impulsive confessions I regretted. Usually because they led to unwanted consequences — a loss of liberty or the initiation of an intervention I wasn’t seeking, or a sudden social or professional distancing, the way you’d shrink from someone snuffling on a bus.”

‘You become numb to this feeling’: man opens up with heartbreaking message on depression, living two lives
‘You become numb to this feeling’: man opens up with heartbreaking message on depression, living two lives

Bell Let’s Talk “is the largest-ever mental health program by a Canadian company,” according to Michelis. It’s committed to tackling stigma.

“There is definitely a cultural shift happening, and it’s great that we are allowed to openly say that we’re struggling with mental health,” says Vido.

“(But) the campaign is just the tip of the iceberg… using the hashtag or posting a picture online one day a year doesn’t dive into the underlying issues our society is facing.”

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If anything, Vido says, Bell Let’s Talk puts the brand front and centre over the purpose of the campaign — “Why not just #LetsTalk?”

For Gabby Aquino, an advocate with the Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project, the campaign brings to mind “greenwashing” and “pinkwashing.

“You see these big corporations who actively contribute to different social issues like homophobia or who actively contribute to the climate crisis try to come up with these campaigns under which they construct a narrative that resituates them as the champion for a solution,” Aquino says.

Since 2013, Bell has had a contract with the Ontario government to run its prison phone system. The system has been much maligned because inmates can only place collect calls to landlines at costs of up to $1 per minute. It’s a huge part of why Aquino and the Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project are critical of the Bell Let’s Talk campaign.

“Prisons isolate individuals, and these phone calls represent a lifeline to the world outside,” Aquino says. But that lifeline disappears when you have to add up the cost of a call to a lawyer, to a mother, sister, friend or any mental health resources, or even when you factor in how many of those people have a landline to accept collect calls.

Bell’s prison phone-management contract in Ontario “is actively harming the mental health of incarcerated folk, their loved ones, their community and so on, and plays a major role in the ongoing mental health crisis in our prison system,” she says.

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“But [the company] uses its Bell Let’s Talk Day campaign as a way to create a narrative in which they present themselves as a leader who advocates and champions the mental health of Canadians across the country.”
Helping men open up about mental health struggles
Helping men open up about mental health struggles

Michelis declined to speak specifically about the prison phone contract, except to say that the terms of service were specified by the Ontario government. Bell has submitted a new proposal for June 2020, when the current contract runs out.

The government did not respond to a question about concerns that the phone contract with Bell puts inmates’ mental health in jeopardy because it makes it too expensive to call. The new phone system will “provide inmates with access to telephone services at reasonable rates so they can maintain connections with family, lawyers and with community organizations and agencies,” said Kristy Denette, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General, in a statement.

Access is what it comes down to, Vido says, whether you’re behind bars or not.

“We can talk about mental health all we want, but access to proper mental health care and services is key to properly addressing these issues.”

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READ MORE: Canadians split on covering mental health services through provincial health plans, Ipsos poll finds

The solution, as Vido wrote in her thesis, isn’t as simple as more money from more tweets.

“The co-ordination of our funding is causing societal problems, and a qualitative solution is needed,” Vido wrote.

“Instead, cause-related marketing is ubiquitous and disguising this issue with celebratory campaigns and thons filled with happy stories, clapping, chanting and easy ways to donate more and more money.”

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— With files from the Canadian Press