But seriously, let’s talk

Graphic by Alexa Hawksworth

Bell Let’s Talk campaign points to larger issues in mental health advocacy.

Every year, Bell Let’s Talk Day strikes a chord. As the event on Jan. 24 approaches, I want to talk more about exactly what makes this seemingly well-intentioned campaign a bit unsavoury, and how its nature is indicative of larger issues. 

For context, Bell Let’s Talk was started in 2010 by the telecommunications company Bell Media as the largest mental health initiative in Canada. Though it’s an ongoing campaign, each January is marked by a specific day where their advertising goes full force. I’m sure everyone is familiar with their pledge to donate five cents to mental health programs for every text and social media interaction that includes #BellLetsTalk, and the subsequent flooding of similar messaging—although in 2023, the company announced they would replace this strategy with a $10 M lump sum donation. 

In a sense, the campaign filled an important gap, as few other major companies are so vocally dedicated to the issue of mental health. This advocacy takes the form of four pillars, according to their website: “fighting the stigma, improving access to care, supporting world class research and leading by example in workplace mental health” (which is ironic considering past allegations concerning Bell’s working conditions). Their mission statement in contrast to their actions can be scrutinized, along with their overall mental health advocacy campaign. 

The name itself is problematic to many who have speculated on the corporatization of mental health and the fact that Bell features its own name so boldly. In a 2019 statement, the company claimed that “it put its name on the campaign because no one else would,” as mental health was discussed very little at the time. Still, this is a very effective advertising campaign that ultimately benefits the company, no matter what cause they’re supporting. Maybe I’m biased—personally, I’m skeptical of any major corporation that claims to be doing a good deed—but publicity is still publicity.

The publicity often takes the form of short videos about mental illness coupled with alarming statistics (such as this one, which tackles suicide rates in Canada). Though destigmatizing conversations around mental illness do need a starting point, the videos are a little reductive and sensationalized. The presentation usually includes a shock factor, and the solution is always the same: just reach out. The campaign implies that talking about it is the most difficult step, but fails to acknowledge the systemic issues within mental health programs. Sure, there are resources out there. But how good are they?

Mental health resources are just another part of a broken health care system that is often inaccessible, damaged by bureaucracy and a lack of proper care. From what I’ve witnessed through friends and family members who sought help, the truth is quite jarring; the health care system, particularly in the sector of mental health, can actually be quite cruel. 

People must jump through endless hoops to acquire care, while being condescended by healthcare workers or mental health professionals and being exposed to environments that are not conducive to healing (the state of psychiatric facilities is a topic begging for its own article). These issues are even more prevalent for marginalized communities, with countless examples of injustice and malpractice in the healthcare system. 

It’s ironic that those who need help the most are often dehumanized by systems that claim to be the solution. I can’t help but be disillusioned by the notion of seeking help, and resentful of any campaign that reduces such a complex issue to such a simple solution. This isn’t to disregard the campaign’s message as a whole: talking about mental health is of the utmost importance, and we do have to start somewhere. However, we also need to reflect on societal factors that contribute to mental illness—a broken system is not the solution. 

Issues with mental health advocacy do not begin or end with Bell. Bell Let’s Talk is just one example. The way that mental health is discussed points to the need for a complete reform. Though efforts have been made to destigmatize mental illness and improve access to needed services, this is only the beginning.

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