My Problem with #BellLetsTalk

Last week, if you are a frequent social media user, you may have  noticed that a lot of the cyber conversation revolved around mental health, all of your friends using the hashtag “#BellLetsTalk.” This is because of a campaign launched in 2010 by Bell, a Canadian telecommunications company, called “Bell Let’s Talk.” Bell launched this initiative in the hopes of beginning a conversation about mental health. In the past few years, this initiative has grown exponentially, popularizing the hashtag on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. During the campaign, the company donates five cents to mental health initiatives for every social media post or text message that uses “#BellLetsTalk.”

When I initially discovered the Bell Let’s Talk movement a few years ago, I was very excited about it. As a person who had been recently diagnosed with multiple anxiety disorders, I looked forward to the prospect of starting a conversation about mental health – a conversation I knew was long overdue. I made a few social media posts about my own experiences with mental health issues, and I received a lot of encouragement from friends and family online. Along with raising millions for mental health initiatives, I learned that this movement gives people a platform to share their story, and the opportunity to hear from others and perhaps to feel a little less alone. Despite these advantages, I have grown to be less than enthusiastic about the movement as a whole over the past few years. I have been able to recognize the flaws in the Bell Let’s Talk as a movement, and the lack of intersectionality within mental health conversations.

Intersectionality is a major part of the mental health conversation that often gets ignored. When we talk about mental health, it is important to remember that there are many circumstances that factor into a person’s state of well-being. For one, members of marginalized groups are more vulnerable to mental illness. Factors like physical disability, cultural practice, gender identity, and sexuality have huge effects on mental health. However, when we talk about people with mental health issues, we are not always talking about white, cisgender, able-bodied Canadians. Mental health issues do affect these groups, but it is a more nuanced issue. When talking about mental health during the Bell Let’s Talk campaign, many neglect to take factors such as access to resources, stigma, and the intersectionality of marginalization and mental health into account.

A huge aspect of mental health that often goes overlooked in the topic of access and availability of resources, the lack of which is a large issue among people of ethnocultural minorities. A study at York University found data to show that people of ethnocultural minorities are more likely to report experiences of poor mental health, but that they also have less access to treatment. Marginalized  groups, such as people of ethnic minorities and trans people, are less socioeconomically advantaged, and therefore, have less access to mental health services.

Stigma also plays a huge part in mental health issues amongst minority groups. A study done by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health found that Chinese and South Asian mental health patients often have more symptoms of severe mental illness than their white counterparts by the time they are hospitalized. This is possibly due to the stigma and family dynamics surrounding Chinese and South Asian culture when it comes to mental health. Heightened stigmas amongst African, Caribbean, and black Canadians also lead to huge disparities in access to treatment, and a general misunderstanding about mental health within these communities, according to a Huffington Post article by writer Arti Patel.

The LGBTQ+ community is another  minority group who faces major underrepresentation in the mental health conversation. It has been found that 33% of LGBTQ+  youth have attempted to take their own lives at some point. Specifically, trans people and bisexual people are two of the most vulnerable groups when it comes to mental health issues. When contributing to the mental health conversation, it is important to take into account the way people’s experiences affect their health. Queer and trans people, specifically youth who come from unaccepting homes or who have faced harassment and bullying, are going to have a different mental health experience than their heterosexual, cisgender counterparts.

Another way that the lack of intersectionality is illustrated in these conversations is through comparisons of mental health with physical health. Every year during the campaign, I see friends and followers post “inspirational” quotes like “What if we treated mental health like we do physical health?” This is a comparison that many people may not realize is harmful, but it perpetuates the stigma that often surrounds these issues for people with physical disabilities or illness. People, and especially women in particular, are often not taken seriously by professionals when reporting symptoms of physical illness. For these reasons, suggesting that physical illnesses are uniformly treated better than mental illnesses contributes to the misunderstanding that people with physical illness often experience. As well, a study by the Shaw Mind Foundation suggests that people with physical and learning disabilities may be at higher risk of suffering from mental illness. However, these groups are often overlooked when it comes to diagnosing mental health issues. Because of this, stigma affects those with both mental and physical illness.

These are just a few examples of groups that are often overlooked when it comes to both Canadian and global mental health conversations. Discussing intersectionality in the mental health community is important because it allows us to cater mental health efforts to the specific needs of the community. Seeing a lack of diverse representation when it comes to initiatives like the Bell Let’s Talk movement can be so discouraging for many members of the mental health community.

There are other problems I have with movements like Bell Let’s Talk, such as its commercialization, the performative aspects of non-mentally ill people joining the conversation, and the exclusion of psychotic disorders, but I do not think Bell Let’s Talk is a lost cause. I think there are ways to improve a movement which at its core is meant to further the conversation and remove the stigma surrounding mental health issues. The best way to start to affect change in this community it to change the conversation. Next year, and in all the Bell Let’s Talk campaigns following, my hope is that people will begin to understand the nuance of the conversation, and that we can learn how to be more inclusive as a community and its allies.