I have a hard time getting behind the “Bell Let’s Talk” campaign.
For weeks prior to the designated day, subways and bus stops are plastered with the smiling faces of famous Canadians, including Howie Mandel, Serena Ryder, Mary Walsh, and Clara Hughes–all of which are superimposed against Bell’s minimalist blue and white branding. While I appreciate knowing that successful people like the ones mentioned have been able to manage illnesses that are too often swept under the rug, I can’t help but feel like it is both an overly-simplified and sterilized version of what mental health means to so many Canadians.
With the exception of Michel Mpambara (who has remained virtually invisible from the campaign posters), the faces of “Bell Let’s Talk” are white, and fail to represent those who disproportionately suffer from mental illness. It’s great to know that Howie Mandel thinks that mental health is as important as dental health, but try telling that to those who know that they need help but can’t access it due to a system that serves a privileged few.
Like most slacktivist campaigns that allow people to feel as though they are invoking change with minimal effort, “Bell Let’s Talk” ends the conversation at awareness and provides little incentive for people to delve further into the issue. Every year, I see people become two finger activists as they hammer away at their keyboards. Many of them discuss awareness, but few take the time to escalate their sentiments where they would be more impactful, and why should they? Trudeau certainly took note of “Bell Let’s Talk,” but will that improve the way that the federal government supports mental health initiatives? It’s hard to say. Post-secondary institutions across Canada can be accused of similar acts. Although there has been a spike in campus dialogue surrounding mental health awareness, universities continue to gloss over the fact that most students who need to talk to someone are waitlisted because there aren’t enough counsellors. Rather than appropriately addressing the issue, events and campaigns are held under what appears to be the guise of support. As for those who are waitlisted, a referral to a drop-in clinic is usually in the works. That’s not support, that’s a Band-Aid solution for a dysfunctional system.
Though some might argue that it is noble for Bell to use its leverage to promote such an important cause, I remain unconvinced of its alleged altruism. For starters, Bell has been accused of neglecting the mental health needs of its own employees (as told by former employee, Karen K. Ho). Second, rather than partnering with the World Health Organization for World Mental Health Day on October 10th, Bell has chosen instead to raise awareness during a different month, thus allowing it to attach its brand to every mention of mental health. As for the initiatives that Bell donates to, they are all legitimate, but they garner no publicity despite the important work that they do. Due to short-lived grants offered by the corporation, these initiatives benefit from less funding than people are led to believe. Given this, Bell’s current campaign style makes it appear as more of a cheap marketing ploy that exploits people’s experiences while making them think that they are actually doing something useful.
Now, this isn’t to say that sharing personal stories about mental illness isn’t important. It is. I have even shared my own, allowing them to be promoted alongside the “Bell Let’s Talk” hashtag in hopes that they will reach people who are feeling alone on their journey. But we need to go further. We can tweet and text and throw all the money we want at mental health awareness, but until we start pushing for systematic change, people will continue to suffer. So as Canadians put in their 5 cents every year about what “Bell Let’s Talk” means to them, those in need will remain in the margins. Until Bell promotes a more representative, realistic, progressive, and less self-serving campaign, I’m keeping my tweets to myself.