New discussions about mental health are rapidly eroding old misconceptions about well-being. We’re de-stigmatizing mental illness and de-mystifying emotional wellness. The Bell Let’s Talk initiative—which held its seventh annual fundraiser on Wednesday, January 31—stands near the forefront of this cultural shift. By donating five cents for every text and call under Bell networks and for every tweet using #BellLetsTalk, the 2018 campaign was credited with raising nearly $6.92 million for mental health initiatives and promoting public awareness. But, like many big business pursuits, ulterior motives and insincerity are in close proximity. A sludge of issues underlie the progressive veneer of this corporate act of charity, appropriately throwing its goodwill into question.
As a whole, hypocrisy enshrouds the very concept of a corporate-led mental health campaign. While Bell might sell itself as a do-good organization, at the end of the day, the company is still a profit-driven media conglomerate. This fact should give us pause as it highlights the fact that Bell is a hefty cog in the machine of capitalism, which efficiently manufactures conditions that exacerbate mental illness.
Throughout our lives, capitalist modes of thinking preach the belief that our worth as human beings is solely measured by our economic productivity. Society glorifies all-nighters, romanticizes workaholism, and admonishes us for exercising acts of self-care. Notably, this worship of productivity does not extend to the ways in which work can be self-fulfilling—that is, productivity that nourishes creativity, spirituality, or community-building. This culture feeds on feelings of inadequacy, stress, and isolation and is a breeding ground for anxiety and depression. Of course, the operative idea is that people are valued insofar as they serve corporate interests — like that of Bell.
And this isn’t just a theory; Bell has a sordid track record of belittling the mental wellness of its employees. A CBC investigation in 2017 exposed the disastrous health effects of the high-intensity work environment demonstrated in the company’s call centres. Former employee, Andrea Rizzo, explained that she was constantly pressured to up-sell and saddle customers with unnecessary services as a result of impossible sales targets. The looming threat of termination, as well as the dishonest nature of her work, induced frequent panic attacks and drove her to take a stress leave.
Other testimonies paint a similar picture. According to a series of anonymous complaints, it is not uncommon for call centre employees to break down in tears before and during shifts. Jessica Belliveau alleged that sales targets were never adjusted for sick days and that she often suffered vomiting, diarrhea, and ulcers as a result of stress. A sales manager (also on stress leave) described how ever-mounting workloads led to him losing 40 pounds in just a few months. An even grimmer account: former radio host Maria McLean claimed Bell fired her after she requested a two-week mental health leave. It goes without saying that these reports do not suggest a corporation that truly cares about mental wellness.
Besides a concern for their own employees, notably absent from Bell’s mental health campaign is an intersectional approach to mental health. A browse through the various ambassadors of Bell Let’s Talk reveals a legion of white, upper-class, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied representatives — save the token person of colour here and there. What’s more, those exceptions barely touch on how they navigate their struggles with mental health in relation to their marginalized identities. Rather than give tone and colour to a complex anthology of experiences, Bell Let’s Talk broadcasts a simplified narrative of mental health. This dangerously insinuates that encounters with mental illness are interchangeable when, in actuality, factors like race, wealth, gender, sexuality, and physical ability uniquely contour people’s paths toward mental wellness. Institutions and initiatives addressing the different ways that stigma manifests in minority communities — and that relieve the distinct barriers facing them — are impoverished as a result.
In a country that wears its multiculturalism and diversity on its sleeve, there is little excuse for a nationwide program that neglects intersectionality. In fact, no mental health strategy can claim to be complete without a sensitivity toward the social context and cultural threads of people’s lived experiences. The privileged overtones of Bell Let’s Talk indicate a sad attempt to depoliticize social justice and divulge a form of activism that is much more invested in its marketability than the communities it purports to serve.
Certainly, this is not to dismiss the very real contributions Bell Let’s Talk has made in mental health advocacy. The initiative has no doubt helped fold mental wellness into society’s everyday vocabulary, and the social media campaign, by itself, successfully creates an accessible space for dialogue and crowdsourcing. However, we must not allow the corporation in charge to pretend that it is anything but an active player in preserving the structures that withhold mental wellness for all. Let’s talk about that, too.