The “Bell Let’s Talk” Backlash

I guess if anything gets big enough or successful enough, it starts to spark a backlash. The “Bell Let’s Talk” campaign is no exception. In fact, it looks to me like it’s become kind of cool to bash the campaign on social media. And that’s not cool with me.

First a note of explanation to any non-Canadian readers. The Bell Let’s Talk campaign (otherwise known as BLT, not to be confused with the delicious sandwich) centres around “Bell Let’s Talk Day” (this year on January 31), during which Bell (a large telecom company) donates 5¢ for every every tweet that uses the #BellLetsTalk hashtag (they also donate for every Bell network text or mobile call, and they’ve got stuff going on with Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat). Those donations all go towards mental health initiatives in Canada. It’s a high-profile, heavily-advertised event that’s meant to raise money and generate conversations about mental health and reduce the stigma around mental illness.

Since the first Bell Let’s Talk Day in 2010, Bell has donated a total of $86.5 million to mental health causes, and their website lists the 414 grants that they’ve made over the years to various organizations. On Bell Let’s Talk Day last year, there were over 7 million BLT-oriented interactions on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram. #BellLetsTalk was the top Twitter trend in Canada and worldwide that day. As they do every year, people were using the hashtag to express support for those affected by mental illness, and people with mental health issues were talking openly on social media about their experiences, sometimes for the first time.

So, getting back to that backlash. Here’s just a small sample of tweets I came across recently that are critical of the Bell Let’s Talk campaign, representative of the topics that tend to arise…

Tw1

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While I respect their right to express their opinions, I passionately disagree with BLT critics. First of all, BLT has important, tangible benefits. Beyond the millions of dollars donated by Bell to mental health causes (causes that often go under-funded and under-recognized), BLT Day has become a high-profile event when it feels (to me at least) like the stigma surrounding mental illness is magically suspended for one day, and speaking openly about mental health challenges (mostly on social media) becomes widespread and applauded. When there are so many people who spend most days of the year feeling ashamed, alone, and hopeless because of an illness, having one day when maybe you don’t feel that way is an amazing feeling. Would it be nice if that happened every day? You bet. But that’s not the world we’re living in right now. And one day can make a difference.

I know the power of that one day myself. Here’s what I said about my BLT experience in a blog post last year (just my second post ever), in the context of my own anxiety disorders…

I love Bell Let’s Talk Day. I started to take an interest in it a couple of years ago, when I knew my mental health had declined, but I didn’t yet have an accurate name for what was happening to me, and I felt like what was going on in my head was a shameful secret. Whenever Bell Let’s Talk Day rolled around, it was truly exciting for me to see, for one day at least, people talking so openly about mental health and mental illness. I felt so inspired by what I saw being shared on social media: support for people struggling with mental illness, and people sharing their own mental health challenges. It made me feel so much less isolated in what I was experiencing.

…I know that Bell Let’s Talk Day has had a direct positive effect on some of the millions of individual Canadians that live with mental illness. I know because (without trying to sound dramatic) it changed my life. Not all at once, not in one day – but it planted a seed, a seed that maybe I could actually talk about some of the stuff in my head out loud to someone.

And this year, I can add to my list of BLT benefits the fact that it inspired this whole blog. Last January, when I started to think about what I wanted to say on BLT Day, I felt like I was almost bursting with a desire to be open about my mental health for the first time. I realized the things I wanted to say couldn’t be confined to a couple of tweets, so I decided I would write a blog post instead. I guess the rest is (blogging) history! And a year later I can say that my blog has been tremendously helpful to me in my recovery process, as I mentioned in my recent post marking my blog’s one-year anniversary.

So what about the specific criticisms being leveled at BLT?

I can start by addressing the notion that BLT “never addresses psychosis, mania or any mental illness that isn’t mainstream relateable.” A quick visit to the Bell Let’s Talk web page shows a whole range of personal stories from Canadians who have mental health challenges. Sure, there are lots of stories about depression, anxiety, and PTSD, but there are also profiles of people with various other illnesses like schizophreniabipolar disorderand OCDSo that’s one criticism that’s simply not valid.

How about the criticism that “talking” doesn’t change anything, that mental health services are still inadequate? Well, first of all, the lack of mental health services is not the fault of any private company – it falls squarely on the shoulders of our provincial and federal governments, who simply don’t make mental health a high enough priority, in my opinion. Bell has donated large sums of money, but that can’t magically fix a very large system with very large problems. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t still good coming from those donations. And the attention that BLT brings to mental health increases public awareness of this vital issue, which I hope will make it increasingly difficult for governments to ignore it.

And I object to the idea that mere “talking” is useless. As I discussed in my very first blog post, talking about mental illness in huge. For me, the simple act of talking has been at the heart of my recovery. It all started with a conversation with my family doctor, and from there I started seeing a psychiatrist, going to support groups, writing my blog, and being increasingly open about my mental health to friends and family. Talking drove all of that. Talking reduces stigma, and encourages people to seek treatment. Talking saves people’s lives.

What about the objections to BLT as being a corporate marketing ploy by an immoral company? Okay, let’s tackle this one. Is BLT at least partly a corporate marketing thing? Sure. Might Bell have issues with how it treats its employees? Wouldn’t surprise me – sadly many companies do. Could Bell just donate millions of dollars to mental health causes without turning it into a big advertising opportunity for itself? Yup. Would that likely ever happen, with any large company? No.

I’d readily agree that it would be great if we could have a high-profile day to raise awareness of mental health issues without the corporate connection. But right now, out here in the real world, that’s not going to happen without the advertising resources of a company like Bell and, frankly, the kind of brand recognition that Bell Let’s Talk has generated over the past several years. This is what we’ve got for now, and I, for one, am tremendously grateful for it.

The way I see it, if you’re opposing Bell Let’s Talk, you’re trying to shut down one of the very few opportunities that currently exists in Canada for those struggling with mental health issues to feel a bit more comfortable with speaking up and speaking out, and to feel less alone by hearing others do the same. And the real-world result of that opposition would be to silence those people. So while critics and cynics are feeling so very pleased with themselves for being anti-corporate, maybe they should think about who they’re really hurting.

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