Alexea Johnson, Queen’s University
Over the last decade there has been significant progress made in mental health awareness. Social media platforms including Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter have played a substantial role in amplifying the discussion surrounding mental health by allowing users to publicly express their emotions and thoughts. Another factor contributing to the discussion of mental health awareness is social media initiatives, including Bell Let’s Talk.
On January 30th, 2011, Canadian telecommunications company, Bell Canada, began ‘Bell Let’s Talk Day’ with the objective of raising awareness and combating the stigma surrounding mental health. It has become an annual campaign where Bell Canada donates $0.05 to mental health resources whenever someone posts or shares the hashtag #BellLetsTalk, or uses a Bell Let’s Talk filter. This year, Bell Let’s Talk raised more than $7.2 million and gathered 145,442,699 interactions, breaking the previous record of $6.92 million in 2018. With this movement, Bell Let’s Talk Day and other social media initiatives intend on ending the stigma surrounding the mental health struggles, opening a space for those to reflect on the importance of mental health.
Despite, Bell Canada titling their initiative “the world’s biggest conversation about mental health” and receiving overwhelming support from public figures like Justin Trudeau and Ellen DeGeneres, many people have started questioning Bell’s motive behind the campaign. Skeptics and critics claim that the day is just a marketing opportunity for Bell. Moreover, people struggling with serious mental health issues – ones that do not ‘fit’ the Bell Let’s Talk target audience – often feel ostracized by the very movement that intended to help them.
Social media and Bell Let’s Talk both fail to acknowledge the difference between raising mental health awareness and normalizing the symptoms of mental health. Normalizing the symptoms of mental health issues by labelling everyday feelings as “depression” or “anxiety” dilutes the experiences and voices of those coping with these debilitating illnesses. While the day is dedicated to discussing mental health, the conversation seems targeted towards high-school and university aged students going through challenges such as school and relationship related hardships, disregarding the group of individuals struggling with more serious mood and personality disorders such as Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia.
The alienation becomes more apparent for those living in poverty or with racial stereotypes while struggling with a debilitating mental illness. While Bell Let’s Talk does their part in stimulating the discussion, they do not confront legitimate issues that those with mental health conditions must overcome when attempting to treat their illness. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) reports that “Canadians in the lowest income group are 3-4 times more likely to report poor mental health.” Furthermore, only “half of Canadians experiencing a major depressive episode receive potentially adequate care.” Along with the stigmas and prejudices surrounding mental health, the long wait times and the cost for mental health resources greatly contributes to the challenge of receiving mental health care. In Ontario, wait times for mental health care can range from six to twelve months. For those suffering from mental illness, their inner battles that materialize during these long wait periods are detrimental and potentially life-threatening.
Mental health issues also present a substantial economic burden on sufferers. Financially, those in lower income households they must cope with the price of mental health treatments. Those suffering from mental health issues are also less likely to be employed. 70 to 90% of those suffering from severe mental illnesses are unemployed. In Ontario, psychiatrists are OHIP covered, while other useful resources such as psychologists, counsellors and therapists are not. The cost of treating mental illness makes it more difficult for those who are unemployed or receive a lower income from obtaining the resources they need.
In Canada, minorities living in poverty suffer the most as a result of the inadequacy of mental health care access. Over 80% of First Nation reserves in Canada have a median income below the poverty line. First Nation youths are also more likely to die by suicide when compared to non-aboriginal youths. The suicide rates among Inuit youths is 11 times the national average and is among the highest in the world.
On January 30th we all brace ourselves to see an abundance of posts repeating the mantra: ‘it’s okay not to be okay’. But, it’s not okay to not be okay. The discussion surrounding mental wellness has been significantly misguided. Instead of normalizing poor mental health, we should normalize the conversations about mental health and the obstacles those suffering must overcome.
CTVNews.ca Staff. “Bell Let’s Talk Day raises more than $7.2M, breaks previous record.” CTV News. 31 January 2019.
“Mental Illness and Addiction: Facts and Statistics.” Center for Addiction and Mental Health. N.d.
Press, Jordan. “Over 80% of reserves have median income below poverty line, census data shows.” Global News. 10 October 2017.