Sure Bell, Let’s talk

In 2005, the vacation company Sky Travel announced via press release that the third Monday in January is The Most Depressing Day of the Year (or Blue Monday). This was calculated by a scientific formula which measures factors including weather, number of broken New Year’s resolutions, monthly salary, and amount of financial debt. The proposed solution, says Sky Travel, is to increase your debt by leaving the country. The Geographical Cure is romantic but also falls into the symptomatology of the DSM. In the words of Lana Del Rey,

“I moved to California but it’s just a state of mind, it turns out everywhere you go you take yourself, that’s not a lie.”

This concept and formula has since been co-opted to sell everything from alcohol to office supplies. This year, Blue Monday fell on January 20th. By then, Bell’s annual Let’s Talk campaign was well underway.

Since 2010, the Canadian telecommunications giant Bell has spearheaded an annual initiative to “begin a new conversation about Canada’s mental health”. This includes a “tool-kit” with a conversation guide and a powerpoint to help you talk to your friends and family about their mental well-being, as well as resources for teachers to pass on to students. One page sends you to a website which offers a list of “crisis centres across canada”, but when I looked, there were no resources offered in Montreal (where Bell is centered), and one of the first listings took me to the website of a funeral home in Surrey.

The Let’s Talk campaign culminates with 24 hours where Bell will donate 5 cents every time users send a text, make a phone call, or use social media. While this contributes to projects in desperate need of funding, it’s tough not to be cynical when looking at Bell’s annual 5.5 billion dollar profit. Bell exists to make money, and the more times we say their name the more money they make. The campaign also came under fire in 2017 when an employee of a Bell media company was fired after requesting time off for mental health reasons. CBC reached out to Bell for a statement during their coverage of the incident but Bell didn’t want to talk about that.

Other criticism of the Let’s Talk campaign centers around the over-simplification of mental health issues, and the pressure on individual experiences and actions instead of systemic discussion. Bell ads on social media encourage gestures like supporting a coworker over coffee, but what if your coworker needs support because they’re not being paid a livable wage, or they’re dealing with workplace harassment? Teachers are offered lesson plans or workshop slides to start conversations with students about “mental illness”, but not how to connect it to larger issues like sexual violence, addiction, or eco-grief. As the effects of climate change and biodiversity loss become more obvious and the conversations turn darker and more urgent, more people around the world are attributing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to concerns about the future of the planet, and having to deal with the aftermath of increasingly common catastrophes like the ongoing fires in Australia. Mental health is an environmental, social, and economic issue, and leading workshops on meditation in the face of these kinds of challenges feels like cleaning up a beach to prepare for a tsunami.

University students are a specifically vulnerable population when it comes to mental health issues, due to factors ranging from academic and financial pressure to isolation and distance from friends and family. Illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder also most commonly emerge in your late teens or early twenties, and can be triggered or worsened by drug and alcohol use. Despite long-standing statistics that demonstrate the mental health crises on most university campuses, support is difficult to find. At Concordia the waitlist to see a psychiatrist or counsellor is months long, and the follow-up can be sporadic and unreliable. Grassroots groups like the Center for Gender Advocacy and the Concordia Nightline offer free peer-support services, but these groups are always fighting for their existence in the same capitalist hell-scape that leads students to their door.

On their website, Bell insists that if this is a crisis you should go to a hospital or call 911. My friends and I look at each other and solemnly promise never to call 911. Police are usually the first to respond to a mental health call, and those interactions can be traumatic at best and fatal at worst. The US-based Treatment Advocacy Center reports that “people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than other civilians”, and this risk is always higher for people of colour.

What’s the answer, then? The sun sets before 5pm, Australia is still on fire, when François Legault does something racist it’s not even news anymore. I skip a party to work on a paper about wealth inequality and then fall asleep before 10. My roommate comes home from the late shift and we don’t see each other for days. We leave words of encouragement on sticky-notes in the kitchen. I get an email about Concordia’s next Mental Health Fair and think about whispering all my fears into the soft ear of a Cocker Spaniel. He can’t do anything about it either.

I guess one of the things that irks me is that Bell is making money off of communication. When they say “let’s talk”, they mean “use our products”. Pay us so you can connect with your home. Pay us so you can be there for your friends. They’ve turned connection into a commodity when it’s vital for human survival. Connection and communication are free and radical, and they’re all we’ve got. Let’s talk about potlucks, eco-grief circles, singing together. Support your coworkers by starting a union. Support your friends by feeding each other and telling stories. Bell wants to “begin a new conversation”, I want to continue the one that’s been happening for thousands of years, where a community supports each other and makes sure no one gets left behind. As Lana Del Rey would say, “Fuck it. I love you.”


— by Emily Carson-Apstein