Bell, Let’s Talk About the Skeptics

Bell Let's Talk Day is by no means perfect, but aren't there more important things to worry about?

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Two years ago, while studying Media, Information and Technoculture (MIT) at Western University, I was sitting in a third year class titled “Media and Mental Health” where we studied representations of mental health in the media. That particular day the small class of about thirty students was discussing Bell Let’s Talk Day, an initiative started by communications conglomerate Bell Media in 2010 to raise awareness for mental health in Canada. The campaign centres around having an open discussion about mental health in order to diminish the stigma, and on January 31st of each year the company raises money through a community of online interactions including calls, text messages, and tweets. So far the campaign has donated $86,504,429 to mental health programs across the country.

The purpose of MIT, the program that this particular class fell under, is to study media and society through a critical (and often skeptical) lens, so I was not surprised to hear members of the class, openly anxious and depressed students included, criticize Bell Let’s Talk regarding its capitalist nature. After all, they argued, this is an initiative run by one of Canada’s largest corporations and it no doubt benefits Bell’s reputation and bottom line. I remember listening to those concerns, processing where they came from, and having mixed feelings about them. On the one side, I began to view what I originally thought of as a well-intentioned campaign slightly more ambiguously. On the other, I wondered what good we were doing by spending our time critiquing it.

A quick scan of the web results in countless articles criticizing the Bell Let’s Talk campaign in a similar manner: “Let’s Talk About The Corporatization of Mental Health,” “Dear Bell, let's talk about how you're part of the mental health problem,” or “Bell Let's Talk Day: a good deed, or just good PR?” to name a few. These articles express various concerns surrounding Bell’s mental health initiative, highlighting every quarrel imaginable from the irony of Bell’s products leading to mental health problems in the first place to the “erosion of our social systems through corporate greed” leading us to rely on corporate sponsorship to sustain our mental health system. What these articles don’t do is offer realistic alternatives to appeal our mental health system.

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A couple months ago I came across a VICE article by Megan Nolan titled, “The Problem with the #MeToo Campaign.” Published shortly after the Harvey Weinstein allegations became public and the hashtag #MeToo started trending (expressed by women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted), Nolan argued that awareness-raising in itself does not solve the larger problems surrounding the patriarchy and power relations, and therefore the #MeToo campaign does little to solve these larger societal problems. Reading her article, the same questions came into my head that I pondered during that third year university class: Although Nolan may have a point, what is her critique doing to help? If anything, isn’t she halting the momentum of an important and overdue movement?

“Awareness of the scale of abuse does not address these problems. The simple fact is, I have no idea how to address them,” Nolan writes. She, like countless others who in the digital age are empowered and given a platform to critique whatever they disagree with, no matter how small the quarrel is, admits to having no solution. So why not let it breath? Why strangle a well-intentioned campaign like #MeToo or Bell Let’s Talk when the former helps women by giving them a platform to speak out and the latter helps raise awareness, diminish the stigma, and raise money for mental health programs across the country? 

The truth is, in the information age we are flooded with opinion pieces criticizing everything imaginable. And although sharing our opinions can be good: It can lead to thought-provoking discourse between people who traditionally see things differently; offering our opinions can also be problematic, especially when those opinion criticize well-intentioned campaigns without offering alternative solutions.

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Young Canadians are on the brink of a mental health crisis and have been for some time. According to the National College Health Assessment survey, a fifth of Canadian post-secondary students are battling a mental illness and rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide are all on the rise. Unfortunately, due to the associated stigma, two-thirds of the Canadians living with a mental illness do not seek help, and the Bell Let’s Talk campaign was created to fix these problems. Since 2010, the campaign has diminished the stigma through an open discourse and the money raised is being donated to universities, grassroots organizations, hospitals, and research programs across the country to offer better support to those in need.

Bell Let’s Talk may have problems: Any campaign run by a corporation as large and controversial as Bell Media will. And I understand the critiques that call for a revolution where our mental health system is not sustained by corporate entities. But as long as our government continues to put mental health on the back-burner, we should support any organization that tries to help, media conglomerate or not.

The fundamental question is, can a corporation be both good and bad? The skeptics say no: As long as Bell Media is at fault for exploiting us by selling problematic technology, it cannot simultaneously do social good and inspire others to follow suit. But I would argue the opposite: That a corporation, like a person, can be both good and bad, and by not rewarding the good we are deterring other companies from following suit. Bell is by no means a B Corp (a corporation that meets the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance), but the Bell Let’s Talk campaign is a step in the right direction. It is an example of how a corporation as influential and profitable as Bell can make a positive impact on Canadian society and by critiquing it we are discouraging this behaviour.

Bell Let’s Talk Day is by no means perfect, and whether you choose to support the campaign on January 31st is entirely up to you. But when Donald Trump is the president of the United States and people are eating Tide pods, aren't there more important things to worry about? 

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