#BellLetsTalk: Reducing Stigma or Corporate Self-Promotion?

As you undoubtedly know, January 28th was the day for tweeting, texting, and calling in order to raise money for mental health. Bell Canada, one of Canada’s largest telecom companies, has run their Let’s Talk campaign since 2011. For every #BellLetsTalk hashtag tweeted, or image posted in Facebook, Bell donates 5 cents for mental health. Five cents is also donated for every local and long distance call and text that Bell customers send. It doesn't sound like much, but this years total amounted to more than 6 million dollars. Great right? Some people are not so sure. I’ve grappled with this question myself.  

Many question the utility of what one Edmonton columnist called “hashtag slacktivism” – that is to say that a few inspiring or hopeful tweets doesn't do much good. Raising 5 cents (or maybe 15 or 20!) and then carrying on without further thought to this cause or the people it affects hardly counts as a commitment to a needy cause. There is a risk here that an important cause becomes diluted to what is essentially a social media distraction that lasts about as long as the last trending topic on Twitter. This is a real concern.

Another concern is what happens when we tie an important cause to a national megacorp like Bell? There is little doubt that the 6 million bucks that Bell will donate this year amounts to dirt cheap advertising, which suggests that the real winner might be the Company and not the Cause. To be fair, Bell earmarked 50 million dollars for mental health initiatives over several years starting in 2011, and the Let's Talk earnings are added on top of that. Even still, are all these tweets and messages really just promoting a huge corporation under the guise of a noble-seeming cause? Food for thought.

There is a risk here too, that people direct their attention and time toward a hashtag campaign and a company like Bell, and away from some of the more fundamental issues, like our governments' generally dismal support of mental health priorities. Many argue that with proper access, treatment, and programming provided with the help of stable funding by government, we wouldn’t need a campaign like Bell’s and we would be much further along in treating mental illness and improving lives in Canada. They make a good point.

But is it as simple as all that? Is the campaign a waste of time? A corporate advertising giveaway? Or even worse, a distraction from the real issues?

There are a few reasons that I think the campaign has merit, and most of them have to do with the current state of mental health awareness and mental illness stigma in Canada. The fact of the matter is that most people that experience mental health issues will not seek out help. Why is that? You might wonder about a lack of cheap or free treatment services, and that is part of the problem no doubt. I think a bigger part of the problem is stigma and how difficult it can be to acknowledge the need for help. We usually think of stigma as coming from ignorant others, as when a friend, family member, or employer minimizes or discounts symptoms of mental illness as a lack of will, effort, or character. But stigma also comes from the individual facing difficulties themselves. “I’m not like those people” “I’m not crazy” and “I can deal with this on my own” are the types of expressions I hear countless times from clients sitting in my own office. Others recognize their difficulties but devalue themselves and feel they don't deserve to get help and feel better. Stigma is real, and we need to find ways to encourage communication about mental health. This is an immediate need, one that arguably has to happen before other mental health initiatives will receive broad support, and the Bell campaign contributes in important ways.

While it might just seem like a few tweets that come and go on a day in late January, it amounts to an incredible number of people offering support and sharing stories about mental health and illness. This year, more than 122 million online interactions were counted, including those from major celebrities and politicians. I believe that these messages are worth more than the sum of their 140 characters. They help to shift the conversation away from shame and secrecy and toward something more open, more understandable, and more acceptable. When Brett Wilson tweets that his family has been impacted by mental health issues or Olympian Clara Hughes says publicly that she struggled with depression, it makes it okay for a whole lot of other people to step forward and admit to themselves, “me too.”

And while I agree that Bell is getting a good deal of advertising through this campaign, the value of that partnership goes both ways. Think about it: when was the last time that you saw a major company offer support or sponsorship for initiatives related to mental health (to compare, consider when was the last time you saw company sponsorship or support for cancer research? a children’s hospital?)? There are examples, no doubt, but they are few and far between. Even in 2015 you can bet that many local and national companies would not be comfortable associating their name and brand with mental illness. This can be considered a sad result of stigma, and as serving to reinforce it at the same time.

The fact is, Bell can support any cause they feel like, and will always benefit from the advertising that goes along with it. Putting their name and logo behind mental health initiatives is an act of courage. To those who have experienced mental illness and particularly those who have suffered in silence, it is incredibly meaningful to see a familiar, national brand like Bell on board. Despite what you think about the costs of their cell phone and Internet plans, Bell’s involvement gives the campaign and the message credibility. Bell lends normalcy and ordinariness to mental health and their involvement alone is stigma-reducing.  

We have to remember that the purpose of the campaign is not to cure mental illness or provide access to all who need it. It’s to reduce stigma and quite literally get people talking. I think most people understand that funding access to mental health services is the responsibility of our governments. By helping to get people talking about these issues, I think the Bell campaign has a much greater impact on creating future mental health advocates than it does in distracting people from the real issues.

I believe the day will come when Canadians feel open and comfortable talking about mental illness. When depression or anxiety is not something to be hidden or embarrassed about. When treatment is routinely sought out, and quickly, before problems become severe. When that day comes, Bell Canada won’t be able to contribute much to this cause. We aren't quite there yet, but every January I do think we get a little bit closer.