CW: Suicide, mental illness
Jan. 26 marked the 12th annual Bell Let’s Talk day, an initiative designed by multi-billion dollar telecommunications company Bell that fundraises and spreads awareness about mental health. Despite the importance of destigmatizing mental illness, the reality of Bell’s actions cheapen their purported belief in championing mental health. But even beyond the problems inherent to the company itself, any effort that seeks to bring awareness to the issue of mental health without addressing its structural factors is destined to fail.
Bell’s campaign is engineered to co-opt “awareness” as a marketing tool. The company pledges to donate five cents for calls and texts conducted over their networks, along with social media engagement with the #BellLetsTalk hashtag. Despite being one of the largest telecommunications corporations in Canada, with assets sitting at around $60 billion, its largest actual contribution toward its mental health campaign are its relative pocket change donations—this year clocking in at $8 million. Bell, like many other large corporations that engage in these kinds of initiatives, donates pennies of their overall profits and uses these good deeds for tax write-offs and PR.
Even if we are to give Bell the benefit of the doubt regarding its intentions, the campaign’s sincerity is completely undermined by the exploitation of its employees every other day of the year. In recent years, employees have broken the silence, coming forward with countless reports of toxicity in the workplace, including allegations that Bell denies disability accommodations and puts much pressure on their employees—sometimes so much that they suffer physical consequences as extreme as vomiting blood. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company also let go of hundreds of employees with no concern for their mental or financial well-being.
Bell’s activities are even more sinister outside of the work environment: The company exploits incarcerated people, charging exorbitant rates for telephone calls in and out of prisons. Some families have reported paying over $700 monthly just to be able to speak to their loved ones who are incarcerated. Bell’s utter disrespect for those in prisons, who are already at a higher risk of mental illness themselves, further proves that while those who may be reposting campaign graphics to social media may earnestly care about mental health, Bell does not.
Treating mental health as a problem that ends with awareness has proven to be an incomplete strategy. Despite a consistent rise in engagement over the years, a study conducted between 2011 and 2016 found that the campaign has been ineffective at reducing suicide rates in Ontario. And even though Bell does donate to meaningful treatment and research initiatives across Canada, the relatively small donation provided annually can do little to address the ongoing mental health crisis in the grand scheme of things. Even if the company is unwilling to donate more, the initiative’s organizers should try to address the systemic factors that contribute to growing rates of mental illness and suicide, such as income inequality, job insecurity, and lack of access to proper health services.
While less so the case over the past few years, McGill has publicly taken part in Bell Let’s Talk in the past. The irony of its support for the initiative is clear, considering that the university has consistently ignored student pleas to improve their mental health services. But perhaps it should not be surprising––always concerned with optics, McGill is quick to advertise their alleged vast array of services. And much like how Bell has the resources to do much more good than its current campaign can, the university is well-positioned to make a genuine positive impact on its students’ lives by offering better services and increasing efforts to shift its stone-cold, competitive culture. But instead, it continues to prioritize cost-saving measures and donor appeasal.
Students should not be fooled by self-serving PR stunts, whether they come from McGill or major corporations like Bell. Addressing mental health is structural and urgent, and should be treated as such.