On Bell’s Let’s Talk Campaign: the Conversation Must Continue

Rich Lam

Yesterday was Canadian telecom giant Bell Canada's third-annual Let's Talk Day, a part of Bell's 2010 Mental Health Initiative.

With this program, Bell committed to donating $50 million over five years for mental health programs. Bell's Mental Health Initiative has four focus areas to improve mental health in Canada: workplace mental health, research, community care and access, and anti-stigma. In addition to that $50 million donation, Bell will donate additional money from the Let's Talk Days. Let's Talk Day began in 2011 and continued in 2012, with Bell donating 5 cents from every text message and long distance call by Bell customers to mental health programs and initiatives. In 2011, an additional $3.3 million was raised; in 2012 an additional $3.9 million was raised for mental health programs.

So why a post on mental health on a hockey blog? There a several reasons. For starters, the sports world is not immune to mental illness. Hockey has seen its share of depression and suicide. The NHL is currently grappling with concussions and the related mental health issues associated with that injury. Mental health issues have impacted the Sens community. The Ottawa Senators organization is part of Do It For Daron, an organization in honour of Daron Richardson, which aims to raise funds for mental health research. Bell supported the Sens and DIFD last February, for the second Youth Mental Health Awareness Night at Scotiabank Place and the Sens support Bell's Let's Talk Campaign.

In short, mental health reaches all corners of the hockey world, just as it does everyday life.

Many have questioned the telecom giant's motives for such a campaign and justifiably so. Examples abound of corporate charity which, when the numbers are crunched, amounts to nothing more than advertising, not responsibility. Yes, Bell stands to gain a lot of positive PR and the company's inclusion of the hashtag "#BellLetsTalk" to this year's campaign certainly seemed too much like advertising to some, a cynical ploy from one of the country's largest corporations.

But I don't care.

I don't care if Bell benefits from "BellLetsTalk". I expect they will and that's fine. Because the money and the dialogue are too important and have been too long in coming. From the Canadian Mental Health Association:

  • While mental illness indirectly affects us all, 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime
  • Suicide accounts for nearly one quarter of deaths among Canadians 15-24 year-olds
  • 49% of those who believe they have or are currently suffering from mental illness have not seen a doctor about this problem; stigma about mental illness remains a problem for those who would seek treatment
  • Canada's youth suicide rate is 3rd highest in the industrial world
  • Only 1 out of 5 Canadian children receive the mental health services they need

I don't care that Bell put its name in the hashtag. Adding the hashtag meant non-Bell customers could get in on the fundraising. Adding the hashtag helped push this year's donations to an estimated $4.4 million. Adding the hashtag meant that some people were legitimately starting discussions about mental health, even if many tweets were unrelated to the cause.

By all accounts, this was a successful day for Bell and a successful day for mental health in Canada. But that's all it was - a day. As opinions about mental illness change and as stigmas are lifted we are still left with an enormous problem which requires Let's Talk Days all year long.

Over the past few years we've made strides as a society, particularly in terms of youth mental health, with anti-bully programs and the "It Get's Better" Project. These initiatives are important, these initiatives do good work.

But for things to truly get better, we all need to make a daily effort.

Things don't magically change the minute you leave high school or university; things aren't instantly better the moment we move out on our own or find our calling. Yes, emerging from painful, abusive situations helps those suffering from mental illness, but we all have a role to play in life "getting better" for those around us who are suffering.

People need support networks. To improve our mental health as a society we need greater institutional support; better health care and better access to health care is only part of that support. We need to support co-workers, friends, and family who are suffering. We need to act with compassion and empathy and not suspicion and irritation. We need to foster safe environments - at home, at school, at work - in which it is ok to be mentally ill. We need to foster spaces, both public and private, where we can talk openly about mental illness in all its forms.

We need to keep encouraging those suffering mental health issues to talk about it and seek help. It's great that yesterday was full of encouragement about communication and healing, but that doesn't help someone who is isolated and suffering today or three months from now if that support is not consistently reinforced. Someone suffering should never have to question whether it is ok to talk about their situation.

What's more, we need to understand that many suffering simply cannot take that first step without help. We cannot leave the onus of beginning that difficult conversation on the individual suffering. We all need to be able to understand the warning signs for depression, anxiety and other mental health problems and understand how we can help. Mental health can seem a daunting issue for many who want to help. It is impossible for any one of us to fix the system. But we can all help. We can all create positive space. We can all learn the warning signs.

Mental illness touches all of us. The solutions require all of us.

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