Bell Let's Talk

It’s time for Bell Let’s Talk to put up or shut up

Bell Media’s well-documented past with exploitation and mistreatment of their employees makes their annual nationwide campaign to combat stigmas surrounding mental illness ring hollow — especially when the company never met its 2011 donation pledge and continues to make a ton of money from this marketing/PR exercise.

Bell could really take some sage advice from Elvis with its Let’s Talk campaign: a little less conversation, a little more action.

Today, January 25, marks the 13th edition of the telecommunications juggernaut’s annual nationwide campaign to combat stigmas surrounding mental illness, after a record $8.2-million was raised last year. Ever since Bell Let’s Talk was announced in the fall of 2010 and officially launched in 2011, it’s garnered healthy amounts of both positive publicity and valid criticism. As a neurodivergent person who has battled depression and anxiety for much of my life, I’m no stranger to extreme mental and emotional distress, and I want more than anything for a campaign like this to succeed. But I’ve also had very mixed and complicated feelings about Bell Let’s Talk for a long time.

Part of this is because Bell (and parent company BCE) doesn’t exactly practise what it preaches here. The campaign has faced backlash for focusing too much on spreading awareness and having a perceived emphasis on marketing rather than actually helping enforce change. Bell Media’s well-documented past with exploitation and mistreatment of their employees is also brought up every year, as is the fact that Bell makes a ton of money from Let’s Talk (and the ensuing free publicity for the company) when it isn’t them who should be profiting most.

The Let’s Talk campaign also feels incredibly tone-deaf given the abrupt and controversial departure of veteran CTV news personality Lisa LaFlamme last August, as well as former CP24 anchor Patricia Juggernauth accusing Bell of years’ worth of systemic discrimination via a complaint to the CHRC in October. When a former employee of a Bell-owned radio station asked her superiors to let her go on mental health leave in 2017, she was fired. Bell Media has also rightfully been eviscerated for when, in February 2021, they suddenly and controversially laid off several hundred broadcast employees working for radio stations and TV channels they owned — and the ways in which Bell informed those employees is the textbook definition of being done dirty.

Most importantly, Bell’s supposed commitments are instantly cancelled out by allegations of call centre employees puking up blood, crying before shifts and/or being hospitalized from anxiety attacks due to disgusting amounts of pressure from their capitalistic higher-ups to meet sales quotas. As someone who has been subject to similar conditions at previous jobs (leading to extreme burnout, stress and nearly triggering full-on nervous breakdowns), knowing Bell treats employees this way while anointing themselves as a leader in mental health discourse strikes more than a few nerves.

It’s especially unsavoury when remembering that mental illness is one of the very biggest risk factors for disability and early life expectancy in this country. Given the ongoing national mental health crisis fuelled in no small part by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s more crucial than ever that Bell Media focuses their efforts not just on awareness, but on making actual change happen for the betterment of Canadian citizens and not just the money in their pockets. 

Even if Bell Let’s Talk dubs itself as “the world’s largest conversation about mental health,” and despite Bell greatly increasing mental health benefits for their employees over the years, how much good is that without the societal progress to match? Why bother exhorting the public to take mental health seriously when — even during a global pandemic that has left us all psychologically devastated to varying degrees — you can’t prioritize the mental well-being of those who directly help keep the lights on for you?

Given all of this, Bell’s campaign of spreading awareness for mental health rings increasingly hollow with each passing year, especially as they’d initially pledged to donate $50-million to mental health programs within a five-year span when the Let’s Talk campaign was announced more than 12 years ago. Even if awareness is critical for causes to gain traction, and as nice as it is to see Bell partner with more than 1,000 relevant organizations since the campaign’s inception, it’s well past time for them to either shit or get off the pot.

To their credit, Bell has made recent efforts toward addressing these criticisms, and this appears to be the central theme of the 2023 campaign. Just last week, Bell Let’s Talk gave 11 mental health organizations more than $1-million ($100,000 each) in grant money. Additionally, Bell will donate a lump sum of $10-million in funds to Canadian mental health initiatives — an amount they claim to be the highest in the campaign’s history. This is in lieu of five cent donations from tweets and social media posts using the #BellLetsTalk hashtag and text messages (if you’re a Bell customer) like in previous years. The $8.2-million raised last year was the result of more than 164 million texts and social posts/tweets combined.

Bell is aiming to raise a grand total of $155-million (from each edition of the campaign combined) for mental health projects across the country, which the $10-million lump sum will go toward. Bell says they’ve already pledged more than $139-million in total thus far. They’ll also launch this year’s campaign using the slogan “Let’s change this,” using various types of media to place a bigger focus than ever on achieving tangible progress and change. 

Several initiatives for the 2023 campaign are also designed to raise funds, such as the Bell Let’s Talk Community Fund, Diversity Fund and Post-Secondary Fund. The latter is designed to aid mental health services at Canadian schools at the college, university and CÉGEP levels; an important endeavour considering stories such as when an 18-year-old student at Edmonton’s University of Alberta was evicted from his campus residence in 2016 after a suicide attempt.

2023’s Bell Let’s Talk campaign will also be focused on helping Canadian mental health organizations gain greater publicity and exposure, showcasing how they’re improving mental health services in their respective communities. As great as it is that they’re taking more concrete steps to bring positive, practical changes to mental health services (and accessibility to them) in this country, I still feel as if it should’ve happened much, much sooner. This is because mental health resources in Canada and Quebec generally still leave plenty to be desired.

One resource is Wellness Together Canada, which connects you to a social worker over the phone for just under an hour (emulating a real-world talk therapy session). This is an excellent service, but only when you actually get to use it — once a week, at most. I’d much rather see publicly-funded services open up that people can rely on in a pinch. After all, life crises and anxious and/or depressive feelings don’t just happen once every week.

Here at home, Montreal’s Argyle Institute closed last September due to extreme financial losses (and right before its 40th anniversary), and community organizations have been publicly demanding greater funding for mental health programs. Drearily long wait times for services such as therapy are the norm in Quebec, and those wait times can last an average of eight months and as long as two years.

Most recently (and most dishearteningly), the mother of a 25-year-old Châteauguay woman who committed suicide in December alleges some truly disturbing remarks made toward her by a doctor after a previous failed attempt. Those comments translate to: “If you wanted to kill yourself, you would have done it already, and you just want to put on a show to get attention.”

More than half of Canadians (56%) aren’t getting the mental health assistance they need. One in every two Canadians will also experience mental illness before their 40th birthday, and are 25 times more likely than the average person to commit suicide if they suffer from depression. Affirming the societal stigma of mental illness, a 2019 survey saw participants feeling almost three times more willing to reveal a cancer diagnosis than mental health conditions like depression.

Substance abuse rates in Canada have also risen during the pandemic, with about 20 people dying per day in this country from opioid overdoses — two and a half times greater than in 2016. Across the country, an average of 12 people take their own lives per day (around 4,500 annually), and more than 200 Canadians attempt suicide daily.

Mental health issues have hit younger Montrealers particularly hard during the pandemic, as an October 2020 research survey indicates that 46% of Montreal residents aged 18 to 24 experienced anxiety and/or depression-related symptoms. About one in every five Quebecers are affected by mental illness during their lifetime, and that number is even bigger nationally, with one in every three Canadians eventually experiencing mental health issues.

As much as it’s hard to be hopeful about any tangible changes here given the deeply fractured state of Quebec’s healthcare system in general, I still believe it to be vital — and not just because of the pandemic, either — that we do whatever’s necessary to grow and strengthen our mental health resources in this province.

Getting only a few hundred dollars’ worth in reimbursed psychotherapy sessions from a work insurance plan that places it in the same category as massages is worlds away from being good enough. Mental health resources should be accessible (and free, whenever possible) to anyone in need of them.

I also want to use this piece as a reminder to anyone reading this — especially to other men — that it’s okay to be fully open about your emotions. This especially bears repeating since boys and men are considered a high-risk demographic for suicides in Canada. It’s perfectly okay to cry and express your honest, authentic feelings instead of “manning up” and keeping them hidden for the sake of not annoying others. It’s also important to ask for help whenever necessary.

Admittedly, I’m someone who used to cry often as a young boy, and was bullied by elementary/junior high school classmates (mainly other boys) for it while growing up in an era (the 2000s) defined by more rigid societal views on masculinity and mental wellness, so it can be challenging for me to allow myself to be that vulnerable again. Years of repressing that side of myself can make it difficult for me to cry even when I so desperately want to, and it’s likely affected my long-term mental health for the worse. If nothing else, remember that it’s vital (and healthy) to be completely honest about what’s going on in your head, and how it’s making you feel. You’re not too sensitive, or a “snowflake”, or a “pussy”, or any of those kinds of terms if you cry and/or seek help — you’re being human honest, and taking agency for your wellbeing.

For Bell to ensure that Let’s Talk can truly be effective, they must actively help drive societal changes regarding policy, governmental investment, support from elected officials, and accessibility for mental health initiatives. This also includes the workplace, an area the company has been heavily criticized for. Bell claims that they support “employees and their eligible family members with workplace programs, including unlimited mental health benefits coverage,” and are introducing a certificate program called Workplace Mental Health Leadership to certain partners. All of this is nice to see, but their deeply checkered past with treatment of subordinates — not to mention the inherently profit-driven nature of companies like Bell — makes it easy to both be skeptical of their execution and view the Let’s Talk campaign itself as a tad bit cynical.

Sure, spreading awareness and working toward erasing stigma around mental health is hugely important, but it’s well past time to act on it. Otherwise, what’s the endgame with campaigns like these? Bell’s stated commitment this year to ensuring proper action is taken toward improving mental health in this country is great, but Canadians must also hold them to their word and make sure they get the job done. This should be Bell’s biggest test yet with their annual campaign — one they literally cannot afford to fail, and one for which they don’t have a sparkling track record to back their message up with. Let’s make sure they don’t just “talk” anymore. ■

If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health and/or is suicidal, call 911 in the event of an emergency, or call Suicide Action Montreal at 1-866-277-3553. You can also reach out to your local crisis line or any of the resources listed here for Quebec residents, or call 811 to immediately reach a social worker. Alternatively, call Wellness Together Canada at 1-866-585-0445 to speak with a counsellor free of charge, or text WELLNESS to 741741.

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