I wrote this for Humber College’s Convergence magazine, check out the original and the rest of the content here!
In 2010, Bell announced their new Let’s Talk initiative aimed at ending the stigma surrounding mental health issues.
The media conglomerate uses social media to connect celebrities and athletes with the public to raise awareness about mental illness, but Bell is not without its critics.
This year on Bell’s Let’s Talk Day Karen Ho, a writer and previous employee of Bell Media, wrote an article for CANADALAND that unexpectedly went viral. “Let’s Talk About How My Job at Bell Gave Me Mental Health Issues and No Benefits” very quickly spread over the internet with over 20,000 shares on Facebook alone.
According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), 20 per cent of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime.
Ho knew that the Bell Let’s Talk campaign had a large audience, not just in Canada but now across North America, and has celebrities supporting the day both in Canada and elsewhere, but it was still shared more than she expected.
“I thought it would mostly be for people in media, people in journalism, maybe people interested in labour,” says Ho.
Writer and former Bell Media employee Karen Ho. Photo credit: Walter Strong
The article goes into detail about her experience working at Bell, dealing with the stress that came with that job leading to her feeling stressed both mentally and physically.
“When I finally spoke about my experience a lot of people could relate to the feelings of burnout and not feeling like they had anybody or resources to turn to and that hit a huge chord. And I had no idea how many people it would really strike a chord with.”
While she was with Bell, Ho’s contract didn’t allow her to have mental health care through the company, and even though the contract shown in CANADALAND has improvements, it’s been changed.
“What happened with the contract that was brought forward on the CANADALAND piece’s it was actually backtracked … so the contract that I signed in 2014 is the current contract for people in that position,” says Ho.
Ho doesn’t see the campaign as negative and that the work the Bell Let’s Talk Day does is important, even with Bell’s policies which grant limitations.
“Pledging the money that they do – especially because having come from northern Canada – I understand where the money and the grants are very important,” she says.
Ho would like to see Bell improve on how they handle the well-being of the people within their own company, change with their current policies, especially when it comes to contract and hourly employees that are working in the media division, and dealing with high intensity projects.
“If you are the company known for mental health you should have mental health resources accessible to everyone who has a keycard to the building.”
However, Mary Deacon, the chair of Bell Let’s Talk, says that Bell has made the commitment to lead by example with their workplace practices.
“There’s a huge amount of emergent work in the importance of that. Much as we now take for granted occupational health and safety in the workplace … there is a lot of work out there that shows the mental health and safety can be impacted if you have programs and practices. We are leading the way in that as well as a corporation, because we are committed to walking the walk,” she says.
Deacon has been involved in the mental health funding community since 1998, first working with CAMH. She has also done work with non-profit organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund and the Multiple Sclerosis Society. When George Cope became the president at Bell in 2005, he asked Deacon to come to Bell and look at what could be done with mental health.
Deacon has a personal connection to the mental health cause. She has lost two brothers to suicide.
“My commitment, while shaken, very difficult time for me, it was really redoubled. I couldn’t get away from it and didn’t want to,” says Deacon.
The Bell Let’s Talk initiative, although more commonly known for it’s Bell Let’s Talk Day, consists of four pillars.
“Anti-stigma, care and access, research and workplace. Each one has different strategies and goals and the one that’s public facing is the anti-stigma campaign, the Bell Let’s Talk day is what [people] are most familiar with,” Deacon says.
The funding primarily goes towards care and access and research but there is funding across all four, and to projects across the country. More recently, Deacon mentions, Bell partnered with Canadian Red Cross to incorporate an element into their basic first aid program.
“Starting at the end of 2016 or early 2017, anyone who takes a first aid course by the Red Cross will get basic mental health first aid as part of first aid.”
Bell also created the position of Chair of Mental Health and Anti-Stigma.
Dr. Heather Stuart was called on by Deacon for the position because of her extensive work focused on mental health.
“I had been working a lot with the World Psychiatric Association on anti-stigma for 15 years before I knew anything about Bell, we’ve been working with [trying] to set up a global program to fight stigma associated with schizophrenia,” says Dr. Stuart.
“What we found was [mass media advertising] really doesn’t change anyone’s behaviour at all. It might change their knowledge, it might even improve their attitude but it doesn’t change their behaviour. It’s just not compelling enough to change your behaviour. We found that if you can get people to tell their personal recovery stories that you can develop an emotional attachment.”
The research surrounding stigma is much more difficult to pull together.
“The first thing that we had to do was figure what was going to be our measure, how are we going to judge our success. Was it going to be because somebody knows more or their attitude has changed. I’ve always argued that no, their behaviours have to change,” says Dr. Stuart.
Dr. Heather Stuart. Photo courtesy of Heather Stuart
The research is conducted by using questions created around social distance, such as would you sit beside someone in class if you know they had a mental illness? Or would you marry someone if you knew they had a mental illness?
“Most people have told us that this is a recipe for failure because it’s so hard to change [behaviour]. It’s easier to change knowledge, it’s easier to change attitudes,” she says. “We know from the research that doesn’t translate into behavioral measure, so we’ve done that, and we’ve worked really hard to figure out how to change people’s behaviours.”
Deacon says that it’s possible the next generation of young people could grow up to be stigma-free given how engaged they are with the issue.
“What happens with Bell Let’s Talk Day and all of the spillover and ripple effects throughout the year is…we need to build that community and the community needs to build itself, to take ownership of this issue. The research that we’ve done shows that young people’s attitudes are changing most dramatically as it relates to young people,” says Deacon.
She says that stigma is a very complex thing and that their research shows that the awareness is growing and has been reduced in the last five years but that success, to her, will be when the stigma no longer exists.
“Success is when every day is a day we talk about mental health like we talk about physical health. Success is when there is no stigma. Success is when people everywhere can get the access to the support they need where and when they need it close to home, so they can move forward with their lives and achieve their full potential.”
Being a Humber College public relations student as well as an advocate for mental health, Rebecca Kennedy also sees both sides of the Bell Let’s Talk campaign: the PR side and the side that benefits the mental health community.
“I’m able to look at it from the viewpoint of someone who benefits socially from it and also someone who is maybe a little bit more critical of the approach to it, of the branding, of the campaign itself.”
Kennedy is aware of the criticisms of the campaign and says that they are fair, but that overall it’s still doing what it’s meant to which is raise awareness.
“[Bell Let’s Talk day] does a great job of putting the idea in people’s heads and opening up a dialogue, hopefully, with people about the status of their mental health, of what self-care looks like,” says Kennedy.
Kennedy isn’t aware of any other campaigns that have such a far reach in spreading awareness about mental health and opening up the discussion as Bell Let’s Talk. Social media might be, she says, starting to change the way people are talking, and how comfortable they are with the topic, and that the level of awareness is higher than it has been in the past because of social media usage.
“People are more inclined to maybe talk about certain elements of it or talk about it if they’re more comfortable disclosing to maybe friends and family and even their employers, because its become a more prominent topic of discussion in social circles.”
And there is a difference, she notes, in talking about mental health through social media versus traditional media, and how social media does make it easier to talk openly.
“We’re able to share our thoughts faster, we’re able to communicate more openly, it’s giving people a platform. Whereas with traditional media you’d have to go through certain gatekeepers to get your message out there.”
This doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement. Kennedy thinks there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done, because even though there is more discussion it’s still not as open as it could be.
“It’s very easy to go on social media and hit share or retweet. It’s very simple to do that. And I think where we will see real progress is when people start having these important and necessary conversations about mental health, but also in turn educating themselves about mental health and what mental health really looks like. We see a lot of romanticized ideas of it in the media.”
Kennedy says that it also about taking the time to look at your friends around you and realizing they’re displaying a certain behaviour, or even checking in on a friend you haven’t heard from in a while. That it’s not only about showing support online, but offline as well, which echoes Dr. Stuart’s thinking on behaviours.
“People are very open about their support of the mental health community and they’re sharing the Bell Let’s Talk information and they’re saying ‘Yes, I support mental illness’, but when it comes to the point where people with mental illness start to display symptoms all of the sudden all of that kind of goes out the window,” says Kennedy. “That in a way contributes to stigma. We need to integrate our advocacy and our understanding beyond a social media post, it needs to become a normalized conversation and it also needs to become a normalized idea and we need to accept what’s happening and how we function within what’s going on.”
Dr. Jamie Karagianis, psychiatrist-in-chief at the Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care thinks social media usage has had positive outcomes on the stigma surrounding mental health but also warns of over using it.
The effects of social media, and constantly being plugged into it, can become similar to an addiction.
“Overusing social media may be a manifestation of some kind of addiction. I think that just checking your Facebook or Twitter, or whatever it is to see if there’s anything new, its almost like gambling and it produces a little hit of dopamine every time there’s something novel there. People tend to get kind of addicted to that little dopamine rush in their brain.”
Certain people can be more susceptible to this effect, he says, and can get caught up in spending too much time on social media. This isn’t to say that positive things can’t come from the online world, but Dr. Karagianis is cautious of that as well.
“Sometimes people go to social media to get support and maybe they find it, but there’s also just as many people who get bullied there,” he says.
On the subject of the Bell Let’s Talk Day, Dr. Karagianis believes that it has helped lessened the stigma that surrounds mental health.
“I have been seeing some changes in people’s attitudes towards mental health, at least as expressed over social media. When I first started doing this kind of work, nobody wanted to talk about mental illness, and it was always something you kept behind closed doors,” he says.
“But now a lot more people are willing to talk about experiences that they’ve had and fewer people, I think, are judging others.”
And this, he says, helps people learn more about mental health as well.
“We’re learning a lot more about mental health disorders as being, for example, biologically mediated and not the fault of somebody, you know, doing wrong things or being not a good enough person or this sort of thing.”