I, Talking: The Problems With #BellLetsTalk


At the end of January, the day comes. A well-meaning relative reposts from Bell’s Facebook page, with the pledge of a nickel to vague “mental health initiatives.” That acquaintance from your hometown you haven’t spoken to in 15 years decorates their profile picture with a Bell Let’s Talk frame. Platitudes about “ending the stigma” abound. It’s time for Bell’s big moment again!

In past years, Bell’s “Let’s Talk” campaign had billboards, posters and commercials featuring white within-Canada-only “celebrities.” Howie Mandel is still its most recognizable International Star Ambassador. They’d smile as they held smartphones, imploring you to “talk” while you waited for a bus or for the latest episode of The Bachelor to resume.

2018’s campaign finally directs its focus away from its privileged celebrity endorsers. On their site, you can watch a video of a psychiatrist give a quip about kids not knowing doctors can be mentally unwell. A veteran talks about her PTSI, depression and anxiety. There are mentions of coming out of the other side of homelessness and addiction, suicide survival, and more depression and anxiety. A radio ad features a bipolar lawyer.

Where are those who struggle with schizophrenia, eating disorders, psychosis, dissociative identity disorder or personality disorders? Where is the representation for people who are currently homeless or struggling with addiction due to their mental illness? Where is the representation for those of us currently in a manic episode, a dissociative episode or even in the throes of depression? Even though Mandel is a spokesman, there’s no actual discussion about the realities of OCD!

There’s so much emphasis in the recovery and the “good side” of the illnesses, that when Bell talks about “ending the stigma” it, in fact, further stigmatizes the folks who don’t fit into their neatly-packaged version of mental illness.

Bell Let’s Talk is the name of the day. Of course, the multi-million-dollar conglomerate’s name comes before its so-called charitable mission. In contrast, earlier this month, an anonymous donor gave 100M to The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), Canada’s largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital.

It figures; Bell has a monopoly over half of our choices in phones, cable TV and internet, it’s only natural that they’d want a monopoly in the conversation around mental health in this country.

There’s been lots of criticism aimed at Let’s Talk from former employees, including one with a lawsuit, and from professionals. Maybe you were affected by Bell’s recent data breach – how did that affect your mental health?

I reached out to a few friends who live with mental illness for their thoughts on Let’s Talk, and here’s what they had to say:

Friend 1:

“I'm conflicted. Any encouragement to discuss mental illness more openly is beneficial. However, anything like this pushed by a giant corporation like Bell angers me on principle because I'm not sure the work environment they provide or their overall policies favour mental health and wellness.

Any push like this for talk tends favour more palatable mental health issues like anxiety and depression, leaving out the less appealing things like mania, psychosis, most personality disorders.”

Friend 2:

 “It's a huge marketing ploy and I don't believe for a second that Bell actually cares, espesh considering their track record with employees. It's a tax write-off for them.

Also bullshit is that it gives members of the public a falsely proud feeling of contributing to mental health research while actually doing very little, a great example of slacktivism. For me, it's up there with wearing pink in the name of breast cancer research, another hypocritical corporate marketing initiative.”

Friend 3:

“Bell Let's Talk is the most surface-y, sad, miss-the-point waste of time thing I could imagine to combat stigma!

You ever notice they've got no poor people in their campaigns? The focus seems to be ‘See, even rich people can get this highly stigmatized thing!’ This is not an approach to combating stigma that is supported by the evidence. Neither is the ‘mental illness is a disease like any other’ trope. Those approaches, when studied, do not reduce stigma levels.

The only thing that really works is social contact. Being with people and learning not to be afraid of them, learning a bit more about their lives and what goes on inside their heads. I've also never noticed a person with schizophrenia in one of their campaigns. One of the big sources of stigma is fear of people being violent. No one really grasps the statistic that mentally ill people are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. Because it's a statistic, it's a fact, it's not experiential. Until you sit down and get to know someone and sit with your nonsense fear and swallow it, good luck with combating stigma. I guess do your Bell Let's Talk tweet and go back to silence for another year.

Also ‘Let's Talk’ about how crushing poverty exacerbates mental illness! I would like to see them "talk" about how fucking impossible it is to get an employer to accommodate this kind of disability to any extent, or how ODSP is a fucking joke living in a city like this. Let's talk about how when people are stressed and scared and worried about their next meal, the voices in their head get way meaner and tell them to do way worse things!

Until Bell Let's Talk wants to LISTEN to some people who are down and out, who don't get a square meal, who have been rejected and abandoned and ignored for their whole adult lives, who have been beaten up by cops and jail guards more times than they can count, left in solitary when they're sick, attacked by another patient on the psych ward, missed their mom's funeral because they were locked up.... I WILL HAVE ZERO FUCKING INTEREST IN THAT STUPID CAMPAIGN.”

Now that you get the picture about how me and my mad pals feel about Bell’s Very Special Day, let’s talk.

1.      Talk to Us

Your friends, family and colleagues who live with mental illness. Even if we’re seemingly “fine” – ask how we are really doing. If you can tell we are struggling, offer help. Go out of your way to learn about our illnesses and disorders. Read actual books, don’t just skim a few webpages! Be someone we can trust will take us seriously.

Some of us might want to talk about our diagnoses. Some of us might not. Some of us might think we don’t have anything worth talking about. Engage us. We’re usually watching, listening to or reading something.

2.      Be Mindful of Your Words

Not sure how to talk to us? Here’s what not to say. Don’t tell us to exercise. Don’t tell us to use herbal supplements instead of prescribed medication. Don’t ask if we’ve considered eliminating nightshades and gluten. Don’t over-intellectualize. Don’t say “I know what it’s like” or “I’ve been there” and make it about you.

Words mean things. Nobody uses “the r-word” anymore, and that’s fantastic. Take this a step further and eliminate sanist/ableist language from your vocabulary. Instead of calling a party “crazy” or “insane,” call it “wild.” Don’t call inconsistent weather “bipolar,” say the weather is “unpredictable.” If you haven’t been diagnosed with OCD, you’re not “like, sooooo OCD!” because you like to keep things tidy. Think twice.

3.      Engage with Us

Are we going through depression? Everyday tasks can be burdensome to us. Offer to help us do some chores. Try to get us out of the house and to the grocery store and cook a meal with us. A friend once offered to tidy my apartment. I was too embarrassed by the state of the mess (which probably wasn’t really that bad) and said no, but the offer meant a lot to me. It showed their great insight into what might be difficult for me. Ask us for coffee/tea. Just a general catch-up and seeing your face means more than text and gives us an excuse to get out of the house if we’re in a slump. And if we say no, we’re still happy you thought of us.

4.      Listen to Us

Most of all, listen. Listen when we say we’re not okay. Listen when we say we are okay. Read between the lines for signs of depression and/or mania in our social media posts and check in. When we cancel plans at the last minute, hear it as “I’m too anxious” rather than “I’m flaky.”

5.      Don't Post; Do

Finally, don’t share anything #BellLetsTalk in your social media feeds when the time comes. It speaks volumes if you are someone in our lives who does not make any effort to talk to us but lazily re-posts in the performance of “caring.” Your intentions may be good if you share a Bell Let’s Talk ad, but when it comes down to it, it’s an ad. And if you’re sharing something that allegedly promotes “mental health awareness” or “ending the stigma,” take a look at what you’re actually doing to actively engage with the mad folks in your life. If you aren’t, reach out. Not on the day Bell tells you to “talk,” but when you’re thinking of them.