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Profile of a pensive man with his cheek resting on his clutched hands
Mental illnesses are usually a function of systemic factors on an individual, but Bell’s national awareness campaign doesn’t focus on that. (Shutterstock)

Bell, let’s talk about #colonialism, #racism and #ableism

For more than a decade, the “Bell Let’s Talk” campaign has aimed to reduce stigma and increase conversations surrounding mental illness. On “Let’s Talk Day” — Jan. 28 this year — Bell promotes participation in a national conversation about mental health, committing to donate five cents for every eligible social media or telecommunications interaction that mentions #BellLetsTalk.

While the campaign may help raise awareness, a study by University of Windsor communication studies graduate Jasmine Vido suggests it may be more about marketing than mental health.

In 2017, Bell employees attributed the onset or exacerbation of physical and mental illness symptoms to an extremely stressful corporate culture. There is also the broader social issue of access to telecommunications in Canada, given the high cost of services. These costs may be prohibitively expensive, particularly for populations that are vulnerable to mental illness, such as prison inmates and those who experience chronic poverty.

Bell Let’s Talk will be held on Jan. 28.

Critics have further called out the campaign’s inattention to structural and systemic factors that affect mental health, such as racial and colonial violence. Across these critiques, one theme is consistent: people with mental illness don’t need more talk. What, then, is needed?

Individual responsibility

In the midst of a pandemic that is unquestionably having an impact on mental health across the country, we — a critical health researcher and a feminist disability scholar — undertook an analysis of the way mental illness is represented in Bell’s popular annual campaign.

Bell’s campaign website features 46 profiles of celebrities and community members sharing their experiences with mental illness. The profiles exhibit an image of diversity: Canadian citizens and immigrants, celebrities and everyday people, among them linguistic, cultural, ethnic and sexual minority identities.

The message conveyed is unambiguous: mental illness affects us all. Other constants across these stories include a focus on individual recovery journeys, often aided by professional intervention in the form of therapy or counselling, psychiatric intervention (medication) and, in several cases, hospitalization.

A smaller number of profiles touting non-medical interventions still characterize recovery as individual self-management: managing mental illness by learning coping skills or through willpower and determination. Toxic work culture, bullying and colonial trauma are identified in some team member profiles, but these systemic and social factors are portrayed as contextual information, rather than centred as factors responsible for affecting mental health.

Recognizing systemic accountability

Daniel’s profile, for example, associates discrimination, harassment and questioning his sexual orientation with the onset of depression and anxiety. Daniel’s “quick recovery,” however, is attributed to increased self-awareness and learning coping skills.

In another example, Chris’s profile draws a connection between masculine gender norms and a “highly demanding” workplace culture in Alberta’s oil and gas industry, with the onset of symptoms that led to his diagnosis with bipolar disorder.

Consistent with the Bell Let’s Talk campaign messaging, Chris’s narrative centres medical intervention and the therapeutic effects of “empowering men with the courage to speak up about their mental health.” These stories each identify systemic and social factors that impact mental health. Yet, in both cases, resolution is achieved at the individual level.

Without discounting the value of individual-level intervention and action, it is important to recognize the way systemic and social factors are shrouded when mental health is exclusively portrayed as an individual problem or responsibility. In another example, Denni’s profile acknowledges the impact of trauma in her Indigenous community, where:

Many generations of ʔaq’am children were forcibly sent to the St. Eugene Mission residential school, and these separations affected the entire community in profound ways that have yet to be healed. Emotional distress, loss of culture and different types of addiction have often been a legacy that the community members cope with.

Despite acknowledging the context of colonial violence, Denni’s personal narrative of anxiety and depression is characterized as an individual struggle, remedied through processes of self-discovery, self-expression and giving back to her community. As University of Ottawa doctoral candidate, Meg Peters, suggests in her critical analysis of the campaign, this messaging reinforces a normative narrative while the colonial link to psychiatry is left untouched.

A black and white photo of a woman sitting on the floor with her knees drawn up and her head lowered
The responsibility for overcoming mental illness is placed on the individual. (Shutterstock)

Recovery as a return to productivity

Another commonality across the profiles are stories that recount a familiar pattern. First, mental illness strikes, diminishing productivity (inability to perform at school or work is often cited as the impetus for intervention). Then, through medical intervention, the illness is overcome. Overcoming is confirmed by a return to productivity, in the form of paid employment, education, advocacy or volunteer work.

This pattern is exemplified in Jim’s profile, where depression was identified when “he found he could no longer function and was unable to work.” Initially, medication and therapy enabled him “to pick up his life where he left off.” Long term, however, Jim’s depression returned. Jim’s is one of few examples where the mental illness is not described to have been definitively overcome. Nevertheless, Jim succeeded to return to productive long-term work as a support group facilitator.

All of the profiles that tell first-hand stories of mental illness reinforce this narrative of recovery as return to productivity. Yet, none of them problematize the work-related stressors that are often described as inciting mental illness symptoms.

The profiles of university students Leanne and Chole both cite “pressures to succeed” as a contributing factor to the onset of mental illness symptoms. Gord, a police officer, “sought help” when he was “overwhelmed by the stressors of his work and personal life.” Arnie’s diagnosis with clinical depression occurred following a significant increase to his workload during “major economic turmoil.” Decades later, a “nationwide financial crash plunged the country into crisis, and Arnie once again found himself struggling and pushing himself past his limits,” triggering a relapse.

As with other systemic and social issues, the campaign narratives mention, but fail to acknowledge the very clear impact of a dominant culture of overwork and other productivity-related stressors on mental health. Contrarily, the profiles praise high achievement.

Such recovery narratives of mental illness can be uplifting and hopeful for many individuals experiencing their own mental health challenges. But, with repetition, these stories construct a unitary trope. What message does this send to those who don’t overcome their symptoms and return to productive work?

Moving from the individual to the system

The Bell Let’s Talk campaign has undoubtedly made important contributions to destigmatizing and raising awareness about mental illness. The story this campaign tells about mental health and illness, however, is limiting. By focusing on individual-level interventions, the campaign detracts from systemic and social factors that shape experiences of mental illness and mental health.

If we genuinely want to effect meaningful change, it’s time to shift the conversation away from feel-good overcoming narratives.

Bell, let’s talk about colonialism, racism, homophobia, fatphobia, sanism and ableism. These are the root causes of both stigma and mental illness.

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