MENTAL HEALTH

Boycotting Bell Let’s Talk Day

Some people with mental illness will not participate

This story contains a correction

Sadie Jacobs-Peters wants to hide. To avoid Bell Let’s Talk Day on Jan. 30, she has deleted the Instagram app from her phone for the day. She has also muted the term, “Bell Let’s Talk” on her Twitter account, as she did during the campaign last year.

“It was so overwhelming, and it just felt like something I couldn’t escape,” she says, having taken medication for anxiety and depression for nearly five years. “Usually I’m at school and there’s not a whole lot of places to hide … I just don’t like Bell Let’s Talk Day. It can be very painful for a lot of people.”

Bell Canada calls the campaign “the world’s biggest conversation about mental health.” Ellen DeGeneres, Justin Trudeau, Celine Dion and 138 million other people sent messages of support or told personal stories last year using #BellLet’sTalk.

Every time somebody tweets using the hashtag or watches the Bell Let’s Talk video on Instagram or Facebook, and every time a Bell customer makes a phone call or sends a text message on the day, Bell donates five cents to mental health services. Since 2010, the campaign has raised $93 million, one nickel at a time.

However, some people with mental illness, like Jacobs-Peters, try to block out the campaign. On one hand, they say Bell Let’s Talk Day is too intense, as the mass of messages can trigger harmful thoughts. On the other hand, they say the campaign is too lazy, as Canadians can type a short message, call it activism and call it a day.

A Dalhousie student wears a toque in support of Bell Let’s Talk Day.   Meagan Campbell

“It’s really frustrating for me to see all these people with their little hats and their little noisemakers when they’ve never spoken out about mental health up until this day,” says Jacobs-Peters. “For me it’s a year-round process rather than one day that hits hard and can be quite damaging.”

Damage comes from people watering down the terms “anxiety” and “depression,” Jacobs-Peters says. She says the campaign focuses on student athletes and members of student unions, rather than people who do not fit into these groups. Some people might describe being depressed after a few bad days, she says, which could be legitimate but reduces the weight of her own diagnoses.

“Just listening to others I know will trigger a low period for my depression.”

Students at Mount Allison University clap noisemakers during a basketball game.   Meagan Campbell

Exclusion

Rebecca Butler, a 22-year-old Halifax woman, says most of the social media posts during the campaign do not address mood and personality disorders. Butler has bipolar disorder. In past years, she has stayed off social media for the day, but this year she plans to post messages criticizing the campaign.

“People will share a nicely packaged post or tweet with their experience with anxiety or depression, and it gets 100 retweets, and people say, ‘this is wonderful; this is what we need to be celebrating,’” Butler says.

“Bell Let’s Talk Day is one of these days that removes the messy edges of mental illness. It boils it down to its simplest form for a capitalist marketing campaign.”

Still, Butler recognizes the benefits of the initiative.

“I understand the other part of the argument – all the good that it brings,” she says. “I’m not someone to say, ‘burn the day down. It has no good.’”

Philanthropy 

In Nova Scotia alone, the campaign has funded the salaries of mental health professionals, the creation of a 12-week online program for people with eating disorders and training in suicide prevention for shelter staff.

Alexa Bagnell, chief of psychiatry at the IWK Health Centre, is a regional expert for Bell Let’s Talk.

“Through the Bell Let’s Talk campaign over the years, I’ve seen much more comfort in people talking about mental illness and sharing their stories,” Bagnell writes in an email.

“Like any awareness day … it can be challenging for some individuals who are affected or who have had significant events in their life related to mental illness.”

Bell appoints ambassadors to speak about their own experiences in speeches and videos. One ambassador is Bruno Guévremont, a veteran who has experienced post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite criticism that Bell uses the campaign to boost its public image, Guévremont says the company deserves credit for funding mental health services.

“Bell is taking that on, and they’re doing a really, really good job, and they want to put their names on it, and they should be recognized,” he says.

On Jan. 29, Guévremont delivered a speech at NSCC. One student at NSCC, Thomas Snooks, has been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and dysthymic disorder, which has symptoms that are similar to depression but last longer, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association.

“It can be difficult for people to see a lot of the things that are posted on Bell Let’s Talk Day,” Snooks says, “but I think overall, the openness and the awareness of it is still a good thing.”

Percy Miller, a fourth-year student at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B, says the campaign can give people a false sense of being advocates. She has an anxiety disorder, which she describes as high-functioning.

“While I understand that some students use the day/campaign to tell important stories,” Miller writes in an email. “I ultimately worry that it has given people an out in terms of mental health advocacy.”

Bracing for backlash

For Jacobs-Peters, opposing the campaign is worth the expected criticism.

“I don’t want to villainize myself in the eyes of others, but it’s kind of inevitable,” she says. “One of the reasons why it’s so difficult for me to speak out against Bell Let’s Talk is because of the amount of money that’s been raised.”

Last year on Bell Let’s Talk Day, Jacobs-Peters had to find a quiet classroom, call her partner and cry. During most of the year, she cannot anticipate when she will be overwhelmed, but she knows how she will feel on Jan. 30.

“At least this is one time of the year when I know I’m going to have a mental breakdown,” she says, “so I can schedule that in, plan around it.”

Correction: Jan. 30, 2019: A previous version of this story misidentified schizophrenia as a personality disorder. It is not.

17 comments

  1. Seriously….
    Bell concerned about mental health…lol….sure.
    My partner worked for Bell for 30 years, and knows of dozens of people that have
    quite due to the crazy stress of working for Bell management.

  2. Bell let’s talk. Yes , lets.
    Let’s talk about how working for you drove me back do being on depression medication and sleeping pills.
    Let’s talk about the fact you didn’t pay me properly for months on end putting my living conditions and my credit in jeprody.
    I had to take medical leave before I went off the deep end.
    You have zero interest in the care of your employees that are hired by 3rd party companies so you can avoid liability.
    Trust me when I say it was not the management. It was ypu.
    Your company’s choices. You’re lack of concern for ANYTHING but the sales.
    Truthfully I’d rather file a law suite against ypu for undue stress but hey… you’re a corporation so we all know I’ll never win.
    Thanks for the talk bell.
    I feel soooooo much better now.

  3. Im sorry but the boycotter needs to get over herself. I’m not denying her mental plight but it doesn’t take priority over any one else’s. If you can’t hack a certain day, stay home. Stay off your phone. Take some self initiative instead of adopting the mindset that you are going to be a victim before the time has even come. You’ve now actively decided that you will let the day get the better of you before even reaching it. Thats not poor mental health, that’s a poor attitude.

  4. So ironic. I’ve been on the psychiatric ward twice, 2012 and 2016 in lake ridge health Oshawa. My family and friends would bring me quarters daily to keep in touch with them through the bell phones on the unit. I remember paying at least 1.50 per call to talk to my family and friends and for follow up once I was discharged. Patients on the unit were always asking for change and money. I ignore all Bell commercials during January. Just brings back bad memories.

  5. I can fully understand her point of view, especially about it being triggering, but I feel even one day of “lets talk” has made a huge difference in how we (the mentally ill) are perceived in the public eye. I’m sorry a whole day of national attention isn’t good enough. Perhaps she should go back to the 90s and see how much better she has it now. Progress is slow. Thats a fact that needs to be accepted. Bell Lets Talk is progress.

  6. I have been dealing with members of my family with mental issues all my life. I can tell you that this celebrity infatuation will fade away as quickly as it has arrived…Ellen Oprah and the rest of them are using the issue for their personal gain not to help anybody. The only celebrity that’s been honest is Seth and you can see he holds back to be politically correct. This needs to be something more substantial than an opportunity to make Bell seem more humanist.I wonder how many Bell employees have been disciplined or fired for acting out?for being human with all the ugly consequences of that existential challenge. Coporates pawn off these problems to subcontractors in “human resources” another abomination of our business friendly culture and a way for businesses to remove the problem from their balance sheets. I can tell you in business it was always the difficulties of personal ideas and the challenge of human contact and perception that has led to problems at work. Those that can’t fit in to this corporate ideology are immediately red lettered and are forced into social services if the’re lucky or simply rejected. The mentally ill are not the problem it’s us and we’re in denial…..How do we take care of Alzheimer patients…Someone has to care for them full time.It’s a large commitment but society is barely going to offer any help. It would be alot easier to ask my neighbor to care for her while I go shopping but no it has to be this huge costly infrastructure that doesn’t really work very well. It’s not the system, it’s us that’s the problem ,including this corporate whitewash of real issues.All of the shooters that have killed in the last few decades are not just angry but in need of human contact, and yet we are going to do nothing about it.Other than to moronically conclude that they are evil??!!! what??!! Mental health will not improve for us as a society until we can move beyond our understanding that we are a collective not individuals when it comes to these issues,or the environment or politics.
    It’s anathema to us in our selfish state.
    That’s why a boycott is a better choice than buying into these lies.
    You go girl
    I boycott with you!!!

  7. To post an article filled with such negativity on a day that is supposed to be all about positivity, acceptance, and support is beyond me.

    As someone who has been affiliated with UKC in the past, I feel both sad and ashamed – particularly regarding the wording and picture choice of the author.

    This is not news. This is not simply “boycotting”/withdrawing from participating in the initiative. This is hateful and harmful to those who have found the courage to speak out about their struggles and/or proudly support others experiencing struggles of their own through this initiative, including the obviously very proud subject of your second photo (which was conveniently paired with the quote about “little hats and noisemakers”). Poor taste.

    (Also, don’t get me wrong, everyone is entitled to their own coping mechanisms, but I absolutely do not see a need in tearing down an initiative that meant no harm – the opposite in fact. If she finds this day to be a trigger for her, I support her decision to withdraw herself from participation, but there is no excuse for blatantly belittling other people’s claims of mental illness, as if they shouldn’t be taken as seriously as hers). End of rant.

    1. I think we took away two different things from reading this. I don’t think, in any way they are belittling others’ mental health journeys or experiences… more how people have turned serious health issues into colloquialisms. “Oh I am so depressed!” when one has a bad day, makes light of those who truly do suffer from depression, or people talking about anxiety disorders that they don’t actually have. People saying they are OCD-ing over something, when they don’t ACTUALLY have OCD… all of these things minimize those who truly experience, and battle, these issues daily. Maybe a boycott isn’t the best way to deal with it… but I look at the good and the bad of this day. Sure Bell is trying to help… and maybe they have helped thousands of people, but for those who are still falling through the cracks, this day brings more of those who minimize our experiences, and to hear people “talk” about issues they don’t actually have, can be a triggering experience to some. To hear some people talk about their anxiety, or depression, or OCD tendancies when they don’t really suffer from these things can make those who do feel like their struggles are unimportant.

  8. This about sums it up

    “Some people might describe being depressed after a few bad days, she says, which could be legitimate but reduces the weight of her own diagnoses.”

    It’s all about her, her, her. Gimme a break.

  9. How dare you post a photo of a girl wearing a Bell Let’s Talk hat, WITHOUT consent. How dare you make the assumption that she doesn’t also struggle with her mental health every single day. How dare you leave this up after she asked you to remove it. This day is for showing support to those who struggle with mental illness and should be kept positive. This article is doing the opposite by making assumptions about a pretty girl in a hat. You are bullying and this should be taken down. Pathetic.

  10. Making the assumption that a pretty girl wearing a Bell Let’s Talk hat doesn’t support or care about the cause is wrong. Posting a picture of her mocking her “little hat” is wrong. You have no idea what anyone else goes through or why she is wearing that hat. This is bullying, and this article should be deleted. Try looking at things from a more positive perspective.

  11. I boycotted this from day one. Reason: people with mental health issues were not offered concrete helps to find work or secure housing. Reason: the cause (abusive boss) of my mental health issues never saw sanction. Reason: there’s a disconnect now between one group of people demanding death of people with mental illness and people fighting to help those with mental illness. Reason: As outlined, the stigma still exists and people feel good about what they did…and…that’s…it. It’s virtue signaling. Reason: you must have a Bell phone, so if you don’t you’re stigmatized electronically. Sure, let’s talk, but without the marketing. As the lady interviewed said, it’s year-round, not just a day. Consumer/survivor.

    1. There will always be horrible bosses, teachers, figures of authority but at least nowadays people have to courage to stand up against them. I also see my friends and family speak out more openly about mental health issues, more than ever because now it is something people actually talk about…I had no issues talking about the challenges they faced but they were always hesitant to open up but nowadays we talk about it more. talking helps. Even if they are just venting or talking and I listen, it helps. that’s all we all want…to help. So people don’t suffer in silence and alone.

  12. Please consider doing some research before you write as the impact of your words upon fellow students can be significant. Schizophrenia is not a personality disorder, it is a brain disease. Bipolar Disorder is a mood disorder just as depression is a mood disorder. So it would be captured by that general diagnostic term. Debate is healthy and important. So is researching your article.

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