Mental illness is an incredibly important topic to discuss, and yet it is too often shrouded in secrecy. Bell Canada, a media organization, sponsors #BellLetsTalk day one day a year, with the aim of starting that crucial conversation. For every text sent or call made by a subscriber, each tweet using the #BellLetsTalk hashtag, and each Facebook image share of certain images, Bell Canada will donate five cents to mental health initiatives. These funds go to programs to fight stigma, help provide care and access, encourage workplace health, and research.
One of the most profound roadblocks to seeking and obtaining adequate treatment for mental illness is the stigma surrounding it. No one wants to be labelled as "crazy" or treated differently, and unfortunately, this happens far too often. Broadcaster Michael Landsberg once said:
We should avoid using any language that makes people feel a little bit weaker. It keeps them from getting the help they need.
Stigma is a culture of attitudes and beliefs that surround mental illness, and often stems from media influence and negative public attitudes and perceptions. It stereotypes those who suffer from mental illness, belittles them, trivializes or denies their needs, and, in some cases, discredits them. This can cause those who suffer to suffer in silence out of fear or shame, or have their needs not met out of disbelief or discrimination.
Stigma has a profound effect on individual sufferers and on society as a whole.
Mental illness happens to one in five Canadians, and costs our health care system approximately $50 billion each year. Even with that knowledge, mental health programs are chronically underfunded.
Heather Stuart, the mental health and anti-stigma research chair at Queen's University, told the CBC that:
Because of stigma, mental health programs are often the first ones to be cut when there's a budget-tightening exercise going on. They may also be the last to be funded, the first to be cut.
Stigma often happens because people are unaware that these attitudes and stereotypes are ingrained within them. The best way to fight stigma is to prove that those attitudes are wrong; that the mentally ill aren't always dangerous, irresponsible, or lazy. This is why mental health advocates in Canada turned to corporate organizations - to help start a nation-wide conversation on something no one was talking about but 25% of us are living with. It can be frightening to talk about personal battles with mental illness, but with the support of others across Canada, it gets easier. This is why the hashtag was needed.
I've been living with mental illness for over half my life. Somedays I function absolutely perfectly and feel fine, and other days I wake up at 3am with a panic attack. To put it bluntly, it really sucks. What is even worse than that is the stigma associated with being mentally ill. My thoughts, opinions, and concerns are sometimes not taken as seriously as others merely because I am mentally ill and they are not. I hear jokes on a daily basis that make me cringe because the mentally ill, like me, are the ones being mocked, but have been told that I am merely "too sensitive, probably because of the anxiety". The people who say these comments, for the most part, aren't bad people - they simply are unaware that they are perpetuating dangerous attitudes about mental health.
This is why #BellLetsTalk is important. It does have its share of problems, and like most marketing campaigns, it's easy to be critical of the intent. It's concerning that we need a corporate sponsor in order to open a dialogue about mental health, and it is even more concerning to read Bell's own way of dealing with workplace health. Sadly, it is a necessary evil - the conversation simply was not happening before. Mental health advocates point to #BellLetsTalk as a movement that "has encouraged people to be more aware" and say that the awareness and the funds make it so much more than a wise public relations move. A senior medical advisor at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health credited the day with sparking conversation:
It has drawn an unprecedented national spotlight on the subject of mental illness itself.
The first #BellLetsTalk day was in 2010, and since then Bell Canada has raised their commitment threshold to $100 million to fund a variety of mental health initiatives across Canada, including remote areas with little access to existing mental health care.
I firmly believe that one way to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness is to talk about it, and educate others. Hopefully, one day, we won't need a hashtag to inspire us to do it. Until then, #BellLetsTalk.