On Jan. 30, Canadian social media will be flooded with posts about mental health, spurred by Bell’s annual “Let’s Talk” awareness campaign. Since 2011, Bell has raised over nine million dollars for mental health initiatives, which has helped approximately 2 million volunteers to receive mental health crisis training. Their largest social initiative, Bell Let’s Talk Day, has been a wild success; in the past eight years, their hashtag #BellLetsTalk has been used over 800 million times. Let’s Talk has even provided funding to our own university’s mental health programs. Bell has single-handedly created the largest mental health initiative in Canadian history, but, in doing so, they have trivialized the challenges that people with mental illness face.
Bell Let’s Talk relies on a convenient fiction: That ‘reducing the stigma’ around mental illness is the best way to combat the mental health crisis in Canada. As a result, Let’s Talk and other anti-stigma initiatives have turned mental illness into a one-dimensional issue with a simple solution: Awareness. Unfortunately, being ‘aware’ of this issue isn’t going to stop the discrimination that people with mental illness face.
There is a difference between stigma and discrimination, and, although it’s subtle, it has profound implications on how a community decides to combat social issues like mental illness. The Canadian Mental Health Association provides a clear definition that distinguishes the two: A stigma is a negative stereotype, while discrimination is unfair treatment due to a person’s identity, which includes mental illness. To improve the overall quality of life of people with mental illness, we as a community need to combat both stigma and discrimination. Unfortunately, social initiatives that rely on ‘raising awareness,’ like Bell Let’s Talk, underscore the former while neglecting the latter.
Bell’s ‘anti-stigma’ approach has had a positive impact on Canadian society: 89 per cent of respondents to a survey have reported becoming ‘more aware’ of mental illness since 2011. This is beneficial, since, according to the Centre of Addiction and Mental Health, Canada’s current medical infrastructure is not prepared to handle the worsening mental health crisis. For example, over 75 per cent of children with mental health disorders do not have access to specialized care. Canadians have to be aware of these issues in order to address them; but, awareness is no substitute for failing social and medical infrastructure.
While Bell Let’s Talk Day is helpful in raising funds for mental health initiatives, it isn’t going to dismantle the prejudice that those with mental illness face. Instead of simply having a one-day conversation, the community needs to demand that the mental health crisis receives constant attention from our leaders and, in the case of McGill students, their administration. For example, McGill’s administration has slashed funding for its own mental health programs, making services like psychotherapy all but inaccessible to students. Moreover, they have failed to deliver a proper sexual violence policy, despite the fact that sexual assault has been shown to contribute to mental illness. In the face of provincial budget cuts to university funding, McGill’s administrative team reallocated over $2.5 million in fees paid to student services–which are supposed to fund student wellness programs–into the salaries of faculty and senior staff in the 2015–2016 academic year.
This Wednesday, students who believe that they deserve more from their institution should demand more from their administration; actions as simple as sending their faculty’s dean an email stressing the importance of adequate mental health support has the potential to make our lives happier and healthier.