Bell Let’s Talk mental health campaign takes place all over the interwebs on January 25th. I had to maintain a level of namaste when I scrolled by #BellLetsTalk. For a girl with little patience, I got through it by casually humming to the beat of my own voice chanting, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it.” I know it was a significant day for others and without a doubt, they should reflect and revel in whatever is important to them. Personally, I couldn’t silently watch this unfold another year so I tried my best to avoid Facebook… but then it was plastered all over my Instagram too. Congratulations Bell! You are generating more and more buzz each year while raising money and sprinkling on some mental health awareness too.
Since we’re past the 25th, it’s time we had “the” talk. I, like, really need to know what our relationship status is.
Bell, let’s honestly talk OK?
Who were your stakeholders when you first started this? How did you choose your ambassadors? Where did you meet your ambassadors? And where were you last night?! Because I swear this conversation never happened with a middle class – woman of colour – bipolar – mental health advocate like myself.
Your ability to oversimplify and package real human experiences exhausts us, hides us, and silences us. Your peachy A-OK campaign and ambassadors are reinforcing that everyone with a mental health issue can overcome it in order to be happy and productive. Just like all of you… but we aren’t like all of you.
If you really want to advocate for mental health and battle against the stigma, please take your double edge sword to the nearest Medieval Times. You can discuss a new action plan there with the average Joes and Janes who are struggling with a constant battle in their mind because the current plan isn’t working. We don’t want to just talk for a day. In fact, we hate it when we hear the words, “I’m here for you IF you want to talk.” We really prefer an open-ended question that alludes to, “How are you feeling?” or “How can I help you right now?” instead.
In a growing pool of mental health role models and organizations which includes Bell Let’s Talk, I’m afraid that our message is getting lost somewhere between fundraising and trying to raise mental health awareness.
First, these ambassadors don’t represent the average Canadian immigrant income, family, or life experience. Mental illnesses don’t come with free passes that are handed out to those with social or racial privilege, but it does make it easier. If you work a corporate job with a private health plan you can actually afford to be “sick”, to access quality therapy, and to try different medications without sticker shock. For many other Canadians including myself, the calculation is a bit more complex. I am battling both my mind and my bank balance on those days I struggle to get out of bed. I need to go to work not only because I love my job and derive strength from it, but because I need to pay my bills. Cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic barriers further exacerbate this reality. For example, I grew up in a Chinese household. You abso-frigging-lutely do not talk about how you struggle at all; in any capacity. Forget having an actual mental illness. I was 14 years old when I tried to seek help from my family doctor, who was also Chinese. I explained to him how I felt depressed and I was crying.
He told me, “People who need to see these therapists are the ones who try to jump off buildings.” Seriously, I was 14 years old. My mom also barely spoke English so there was no other way to find help at all. And it’s not like my parents neglected me, but they worked a lot of overtime in order to feed 4 children. Oh, and then my aunts and uncles would chime in later saying, “Nobody has time to be crazy!”
The same snapshot of ethnic families still exist today, but now we have Google! We can Google anything in most languages. Thanks Google. Up top! And… *football butt slap*
Secondly, their ambassadors and stakeholders, similar to many other well funded campaigns and initiatives, don’t often include people like me. Or you. Or your spouse, friend, sister, or brother. We’re not well known comedians, athletes, actors, or singer/songwriters. We’re regular people with regular problems squished under the weight of our mental illness when the seasons change and things go haywire. Not to mention the pressure from paying all the bills, medications, and therapies. We don’t have safety nets and spare change. My personal favourite fear is the threat of screwing up and needing to be either on disability, completely jobless, or even homeless if the support isn’t there or the mental illness gets really out of hand.
Our access to the system and all of its resources are limited by just being regular. Again, this doesn’t include the numerous challenges and barriers that are affixed to our cultural and ethnic identities.
And lastly, their corporate obligations to sell mental health by hiding all its ugly parts and promoting “support and recovery” is a big slap in the face. For example, you know that I live with a mental illness but you don’t need to see the full spectrum of my struggle because things will “get better” and I’ll resume my “normal life” again. So on January 25th, we all participate on social media to talk about feelings, and until this day comes again, most of our conversations will pause after the “How-are-you-I’m-OK” exchange. Bell Let’s Talk makes us aware that mental health issues exist but that’s where it stops for most people because there is no direction on how to have those hard conversations about all the ugly parts. You’re leaving the responsibility to those affected by mental illnesses to facilitate these conversations when our answers to “How are you?” are usually “I’m OK.” because we can’t explain ourselves to every person who doesn’t understand mental illnesses. It’s exhausting.
Time and time again, the responsibility falls in our laps to apologize and explain ourselves to others for not being able to do things like show up to a party or respond to text messages. All we want to start hearing is, “I understand – how can I support you right now?”
All in all, I just want these campaigns and initiatives to strip themselves of their mental health marketing/selling duties. We’re not World Vision faces that can be saved by donating money. A little respect for our chronic illness in the form of honesty will suffice. All they need to do is use their position of power to tell the rest of the world that mental illnesses really really really suck sometimes. And that it’s not easy. And no, you don’t just take these medications and go to therapy and it will all get better.
Living with a mental illness for most of your life is like living with cancer in partial remission and infinite treatments that make you sick sometimes. You’re alive, but you aren’t healed. But since there isn’t anything to show for except our scars and suicide attempts, we rely on these mental health campaigns to show the world what it’s really like, while raising awareness and battling stigma too.
Until then, try talking to someone who has spent most of their life fighting for the same normalcy that Bell Let’s Talk aims to portray. Really ask them about what the hell goes on in their day to day life. I think you’ll realize that you don’t overcome mental illness. You live with it and you just get better at getting better. Then you get worse, then you get better.
Here’s a tip: start the conversation by being honest and just ask your questions. Don’t tip toe around it. I promise, we won’t shatter into a million pieces if you’re genuinely nice. For example, “So what’s it like for you everyday and how can I help you?” Try it.
P.S. You can visit their website for more information on how to help, which I’m sure no one under 35 has done yet. We don’t acquire information like this anymore.