Today is the 10th anniversary of Bell Let's Talk, a Canadian initiative designed to inspire conversations about mental health.
Since 2010, the program has committed to donating $100 million to mental health awareness. A great deal of the money is raised on Bell Let's Talk Day, an annual occasion when people are encouraged to share their mental health stories. The campaign encourages people to post messages of support for mental health on social media, and donates five cents for each (as long as they use the hashtag #BellLetsTalk or link to the company in some way).
For many, the day presents a valuable opportunity to reduce stigma by sharing mental health experiences and expressing support.
For others, the day is a classic example of performative activism, a chance for people to express their allyship with the mentally ill for one day without actually doing anything except spreading publicity for a corporation.
For others, it's emblematic of a deeper problem: the corporate world's desire to capitalize on mental health awareness, using it as a way to propagate their brand and to build their PR image while failing to take action on the issues–sometimes even perpetuating the problems.
To its credit, Bell Canada has donated millions of dollars to mental health initiatives, and they have done vital work to encourage conversations about mental illness. But they also receive tax cuts for the work, and rely on the labor of unpaid online users to spread their message.
They've also come under fire from prison justice groups. The company, which provides calling service for people incarcerated in Ontario, has been criticized for making phone bills difficult for prisoners to afford. Under their prison plan, local calls could cost as much as $1 per minute. Calls can also only be routed to landlines, and for some inmates, phone cards can only be refilled on one day of each month. The Canadian government also receives a cut of the profits from the inmates' phone calls,
Ironically, prisons contain disproportionately high levels of mentally ill people, many of whom wind up behind bars because they lack the wealth and resources to find treatment or to challenge arrest. While a program like Bell Let's Talk might be helpful in combating stigma, it won't do anything for a mom who works two jobs, suffers from a chemical imbalance in her brain, and is locked up for a marijuana charge.
Ultimately, people unable to find actual medical treatment or who cannot find a cure-all are more likely to end up behind bars, meaning that the very people Bell promises to help on the Let's Talk Day are likely to wind up paying to make phone calls.
This month, Bell's Prison Phone Contract expires, meaning that the company has a chance to make things right. If Bell really cares about mental health issues, they'll make sure that inmates—who are often disproportionately people of color from lower socioeconomic classes—receive adequate, affordable services.
Still, Bell Let's Talk is, overall, a positive thing, and all the people bravely sharing mental health confessions today deserve love and support. Stopping the stigma around mental illness is a vital first step for any society that wants to address a mental health crisis.
But it's only a tiny part of the solution. Simply talking about mental health is no substitute for professional care, well-balanced medication, the time and resources for self-care, and most importantly, active changes to the systems that created these widespread mental health issues in the first place. Tweeting a hashtag won't heal serotonin imbalances in the brain, and it won't end the environmental disasters, the violence, or the inequality that often underlie and worsen mental health crises.
True and lasting reform will never come from the generosity of corporations or from annual outpourings of generosity. Bell's annual $7 million in donations, while beneficial, puts a band-aid on an issue rather than trying to stop the wound from opening in the first place (and pales in comparison to the corporation's net worth, which is over $2 billion). Like many corporate wellness initiatives, the company valorizes an "end to the stigma" without actually providing affordable services for genuinely mentally ill people or addressing the deeper roots of mental health issues.
This sort of healing will only come from sweeping programs that address the sources of mental health crises—programs that make access to mental health care, a safe planet, and equal opportunity a right for all, regardless of race, socioeconomic class, or Twitter usage.