Op-Ed: A conversation about Bell Let’s Talk Day

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Bell Let’s Talk Day has once again come and passed, and while the original mental health
initiative was started in September 2010, the campaign was launched by Bell as a mental health initiative; 13 years later, does this hashtag still hold value or has corporate advertising overshadowed the initial intent?

Wolfgang Düchtel/The Baron

History

Bell has claimed that since they began in 2010, they have created the world’s most significant conversation about mental health. However, how much of this marketing campaign will directly aid mental health?

In the past, many Canadian organizations operating to help individuals struggling with mental health have benefitted, in every region, from Bell Let’s Talk funding and the adjoining government and corporation sponsoring.

Numbers indicate that almost 1500 organisations providing support and services outside of
Canada have benefited from the support from Bell Let’s talk. An estimated 5,556,332 individual Canadians have been positively affected by access to help for their mental health.

It is also reported that one out of every three Canadians have taken action -undisclosed as to what kind of action related to mental health- since Let’s Talk Day began. The purported mental health initiative has raised more than 129 million dollars for mental health acceptance and awareness.

Wolfgang Düchtel/The Baron

In 2012 ,the first Anti-Stigma Research Chair was established at Queen’s University to continue to advance research, scholarship and outreach programs to help de-stigmatize mental health.

This was a large step forward, as one of the biggest hurdles for anyone struggling with mental illness is overcoming the stigma attached to it. Talking openly in a safe and welcoming environment is essential to lasting change. Bell Let’s Talk Day and the awareness campaign surrounding it has arguably become the world’s most meaningful conversation about mental health, which, in turn, encourages Canadians and people around the world to talk and take action to help reduce stigma and promote awareness and bring understanding so everyone can get the help they need.

Controversy

One of the most problematic aspects of the acclaimed Bell Let’s Talk Day is the need for action accompanying millions of hashtags. We as Canadians need action, not empty words and sports teams advertising that “they’re here for us” on the white conversation bubble associated with the eminent day.

This year, Bell presents itself in an interesting place after the past year of less-than-ideal history of media presence in light of the Lisa LaFlamme controversy, with many advertisements that are striking a nerve in many commentators online.

Wolfgang Düchtel/The Baron

While the Bell Let’s Talk initiative has done unignorable good in Canada in terms of mental
health awareness and has raised plenty of money for the cause, this year, their television
commercial advertising and billboards around the country are displaying remorseful facts more than messages along the line of their campaign: which this year, is “Let’s create meaningful change.”

Viewers of campaign advertisements, which are supposed to bring awareness help, and
destigmatization, are greeted with messages more aimed toward shock value and sensationalism of such a sensitive topic matter. There is a prominent lack of compassion toward viewers who may be triggered by the topics.

It is hard to look past to oversight of mental health action in favour of branding and corporate charity write-offs. A second year UNB student voiced their opinion on the matter saying,

“It would be nice to see a big company and corporation like Bell actually make meaningful change for us Canadians on Bell Let’s Talk Day. But the issue is that they are only focused on themselves and the money they bring in. Yes, they have helped but look at [Lisa] LaFlamme, all the layoffs Bell had last year.

“If they actually cared about mental health, would they have allowed what happened to her to happen? Why can’t this year be the year of affordable mental health care? Affordable housing? It’s like, I have to deal with my mental health challenges every day, all day, but they pretend to care for me one day a year. It’s like, Bell, Let’s Talk about the real things that will decrease suicide rates.”

Wolfgang Düchtel/The Baron

Before kicking off Bell Lets Talk Day 2023, the company kicked off the new year by
committing an additional $10 million to the cause and are spotlighting 30 organizations they believe are creating positive change for mental health. In 2022, Bell Lets Talk logged 164, 298, 820 interactions and Bell donated 8, 214, 941 million dollars. Bell Let’s Talk Day campaign highlights the ways “everyone can create meaningful change and take action by doing one or more of the following”:

  • Choosing a mental health organisation to learn about or support.
  • Helping a friend struggling with their mental health by learning how to support them.
  • Asking about how your school, workplace or community is creating change for mental health.
  • Nurture your own well-being by practicing and learning mental health strategies
  • Get involved in a mental health initiative or organise an event to support mental health
  • Engage in conversations about mental health to fight stigma.

The ten million dollar upfront action on behalf of Bell will replace the donation of 5 cents per interaction that Bell has made in previous years on Bell Let’s Talk Day. This new funding of ten million dollars is more than Bell has ever committed, and it will shift “more emphasis on the day toward practical actions that we can all take throughout the year to create change”.

Bell Lets Talk, the largest corporate commitment to mental health in Canada focuses on 4 key action pillars: fighting the stigma, improving access to care, supporting world class research and leading by example in workplace mental health.

In New Brunswick, the initiative has designated funds, health and wellness grants, the creation of a safe room at the Dr. Everett Chambers Regional Hospital Emergency Room, and the purchase of NB’s first rTMS device for the treatment of mental health disorders.

Bell Lets Talk is also a great opportunity to hold our local governments and organizations
accountable for the support they show. We as New Brunswickers deserve better access to
healthcare, especially for mental health.

Wolfgang Düchtel/The Baron

Again, benefits to mental health initiatives as a result of this campaign are undeniable. Yesterday a national conversation was conducted about mental health as a result of this corporation. Bell will ultimately donate millions of dollars to mental health initiatives; over the past six years Bell Let’s Talk has proven invaluable to mental health groups and the people who rely on those services.

However –we must acknowledge that Bell is getting an astronomical amount of publicity from the thousands of messages being sent using the company name and campaign hashtag.

The millions in donations from Bell can be written off as corporate donations and will ultimately provide a tax benefit to this already very large, well-known, profitable company (which already probably pays shockingly low corporate taxes).

Even though they are contributing overall to the mental health initiative, it is necessary to get a full view of the reality of their campaign. We must acknowledge this truth: Bell gets just as much of a benefit, quite possibly more, from yesterday’s campaign as do the groups they are donating money to and those they subsequently help.

A solution?

In New Brunswick especially, a corporate-sponsored day isn’t a substitute for the lack of public funding and community mental health initiatives available for New Brunswickers. Our provincial government should help to mitigate e the lack of equitable, free, and individualized access to mental health care services because a popular hashtag won’t.

If we want to improve mental health, we need action: to give people housing, end poverty,
promote food security, fund harm reduction, offer workers paid sick days, and the list goes on.

Equity is mental health, and corporate greed, no matter how well-intentioned, will never fix
institutionalized inequality due to systemic poverty. Prevention is our best action. Right now, in New Brunswick, therapy sessions are upwards of 150 dollars, most can’t afford that, and if they can, waitlists are well over six months.

Wolfgang Düchtel/The Baron

If we want to see actual change, there needs to be a lot more done than just talk (or tweet or text) for a day. The conversation needs to transition into real action such as a demand more support for mental health services and local community organizations. Rejecting stigmatizing language and discriminatory practices, and not allowing let very large, very profitable corporations get away with paying inadequate taxes while public services are being cut or eliminated due to underfunding can all help to slowly address the bigger problem Bell Lets Talk Day presents.

Taylor is in her fifth year of her Bachelor of Arts/Education and is double majoring in English and Psychology. She has an affinity for all things Shakespeare, loves old books and has recently discovered a love for gardening! When not at school or work, you can find her perusing thrift stores, collecting beach glass, or watching birds. She is a proud Taylor Swift fan (we only listen to Taylor's Version here) and also believes pasta should be a food group and that gummy bears qualify as a healthy breakfast.