Bell “Let’s Talk” has devolved into a day of pageantry and virtue signalling, undermining the very values it hopes to represent

On Jan. 28, Bell “Let’s Talk” day was celebrated at McMaster University and across Canada. Did you talk to someone about mental health? Because I didn’t — I did double tap on the Instagram posts, though. Oh and I watched the funny Michael Bublé ad.

Bell Let’s Talk is an initiative that began in 2010 with four key goals: to reduce the stigma around mental illness, to increase access to mental health supports and services, to provide funds for research and for Bell to lead by example within their own workplace.

I think the fundraising is absolutely marvellous and one of the best ways a large organization can support mental health (watching Michael Bublé vacuum never felt so good). I must also disclose that I’ve never worked for Bell, so I can’t tell you how well their workplace initiative is going.

Where I think we’ve gone astray, especially at McMaster, is with regards to the other crucial component of supporting mental health: de-stigmatization through conversation.

McMaster states that more than 20,000 of its student-athletes will partake in leading the conversation about mental health on campus, alongside other students and university members to discuss the impacts and stigma that mental illness can have.

Now, I know that I can’t speak to other people’s views, so keep in mind that these are just some of mine: I am a varsity athlete. I’ve got the coveted blue hat. I’ve posed with the cute little speech bubble posters saying “#endthestigma” and “it’s okay to not be okay.”

I’ve also had my coach tell me, on the same week I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder no less, that she guaranteed that “whatever kind of week I was having, her’s was worse.” I also remember the day the rookies on our team got their Bell “Let’s Talk” hats.

In the span of probably 30 seconds, we had them put on the hats, thrust the signs into their hands, snapped a picture for the gram and then left to go home. There was no talking.

I’ve also had my coach tell me, on the same week I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder no less, that she guaranteed that “whatever kind of week I was having, her’s was worse.”

I’m not blameless in this either. Even though I know too well the pain, discomfort and humiliation of a mental illness, I’ve been mean to teammates I didn’t like without thinking of their personal situations (or, even worse, with full awareness of their circumstances). I’ve giggled at other people’s spiteful and insensitive jokes, glad to be included and keen to not end up on the receiving end and I am ashamed.

My reason for saying all this is to illustrate how participation in Bell “Let’s Talk” day has become an exercise in pageantry, devoid of any of the meaningful action it purports to inspire.

To paraphrase Macbeth, it’s a load of sound and worry, signifying nothing. Holding up a sign that says “#LetsTalk” does not fulfill your obligation to have that talk. Writing “#endthestigma” doesn’t really end the stigma if you never make an effort to understand the “stigma” in the first place or change your own behaviour.

An opinion contributor for the Toronto Star wrote that on Bell “Let’s Talk” day, all they saw were billboards of mostly white, well-groomed people, alongside text that read “Mental Health Affects Us All.” When I look at the McMaster Marauders Instagram posts, for example, that is pretty much all I see, too.

The reality is that mental health is not pretty. Ending the stigma surrounding mental health shouldn’t be limited to a day where you can check a box saying “I care” by posting a photo on Instagram and then moving on with your life.

Ending the stigma surrounding mental health shouldn’t be limited to a day where you can check a box saying “I care” by posting a photo on Instagram and then moving on with your life.

If we truly mean all those slogans and hashtags and well wishes, we need to sit down before (or after) the photo is taken and have that uncomfortable conversation about what mental health looks like, how we encounter it and what we can do to help. Then, we need to carry that conversation with us beyond Bell “Let’s Talk” day and apply it to our thoughts, words and actions.

Don’t laugh at those problematic jokes, talk to the person who is considered painfully uncool, stand up to people you admire and respect and love when they’re doing something wrong. As Dumbledore would say, “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”

No more pretending let’s end this stigma for real.

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