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Let’s Talk about the corporatization of mental health

Suffering isn’t for sale, and healing isn’t a hashtag

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Image Credits: Matthew Fong

Mental health in the media is never messy. Portrayed sufferers tend to be bored white people who spend their time indoors with the lights off, until they find the perfect medication for them. Then it’s all bike rides, swingsets, and walks on the beach. Symptoms are clean and treatment is simple: all it takes is the perfect pill, and wham, instant relief.

But anyone who has lived with mental illness, or has a person in their life living with one — which is pretty much everyone — knows this is bullshit. There’s no easy fix for mental illness, and if there were, it probably wouldn’t be sold in a box. Recovery requires a steady support group, help from a professional, a hell of a lot of effort, and, most of all, time.

It’s work worth doing, but it is work, and it’s a struggle that is almost never portrayed in the media.

Which brings me to Bell Let’s Talk, a program that advocates for mental health awareness and destigmatization. Every January since 2011, Bell has devoted a day to sponsored support of mental health initiatives, donating 5¢ for every tweet, text, Instagram, and Snapchat sent with a #BellLetsTalk hashtag. It promises aid through vague, but positive-sounding slogans like “Be Kind” and “Language Matters.”

The campaign comes with a who’s who of celebrity survivors, including Deal or No Deal host Howie Mandel and decorated Olympian Clara Hughes, the latter of whom has her face plastered on seemingly every bus stop in the city. It’s clean, it’s stress-free, and it comes with testimonials from your favourite TV personalities. What more could you want?

I would love to believe that Bell has only our best interests at heart. And to their credit, they do end up raising a lot of money — about $6 million in total to approved charities including the Canadian Red Cross and the Canadian Mental Health Association.

But let’s not forget that Bell still charges customers for all texts sent during the day, and gains plenty of positive media coverage throughout their campaign. Every tweet you send serves a double purpose: it’s a donation to charities that also promises more pocket lining for high-paid media executives.

As with any company, Bell has a product to sell. It’s the biggest telecommunications company in Canada, and about 28 percent of all media and communications revenues in the country as of last year were Bell’s. Canada’s media concentration is among the worst in the G8, and Bell has been targeted for charges of censorship and increasing the monopoly of Canadian media by a handful of companies.

All of this is to say that, for better or worse, Bell has the ability to significantly impact how Canadians see mental health. And the company’s portrayal of Mental Wellness™ is as adulterated as they come, implying that depression is just a case of the blues, and the cure is a hug and some friendly conversation.

It also focuses primarily on young middle-class whites, while mental illness disproportionately affects seniors, the homeless, those in lower income brackets, and those with substance abuse problems. And most Canadians with a serious mental illnesses are also unemployed, meaning that their access to Bell services is likely limited — leaving them out of all the hashtag hype.

To be clear, I’m all about sharing your experiences on social media, and pretty much anywhere else. I’m a chronic oversharer myself. Visibility is important, and stigma is a real barrier to acceptance.

But the medium is the message: every discussion of mental health spurned by Bell Let’s Talk is mediated by the needs and wants of a multi-billion dollar corporation that’s more concerned with your wallet than your wellness.

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