This is the first part in a four-part series exploring the Let’s Talk campaign. If you would like to read the article in its entirety right now, it is available on my Patreon.

Introduction

Today is Bell Canada’s #letstalk day. There’s a lot of hashtagging happening, and a lot of billboards up and good intentions, but it’s a complicated and messy issue. It’s not a simple narrative – “this is a good thing” or “this is a bad thing.” What this is, as many health issues are, is complicated. It’s messy. It’s a big conversation.

One critical part of the conversation is the language we use around it. I use the language of neurodiversity, because the illness model is not one that works for me. I appreciate the Drop the Disorder movement, and the Mad Pride movement, and in my own personal narratives of mental health and neurodivergence, allowing myself to move away from an illness model and view myself as divergent rather than broken has been important. However, I know that the frame of illness works for a lot of people, and the idea of a “broken brain” can be the right fit for some. (I definitely understand the appeal of a metaphor that includes the potential for “fixing”!) It’s not the language that I use, but that’s not because it is wrong language.

But the larger conversation gets narrowed, at least in Canada, on one day in January, to the viral and hugely successful Let’s Talk campaign. The campaign has run annually since 2011, and has raised over $100 million for the various charities, research foundations, and grants that Bell supports through this program. Bell’s website says, “For every text, call, tweet and Instagram post, Facebook video view and use of Snapchat geofilter, Bell will contribute 5 ¢ more to mental health initiatives. So let’s work together to create a stigma-free Canada!”

Their initiative is built on four pillars, described on the site. “Dedicated to moving mental health forward in Canada, Bell Let’s Talk promotes awareness and action with a strategy built on 4 key pillars: Fighting the stigma, improving access to care, supporting world-class research, and leading by example in workplace mental health.”

It is sparking conversations. My facebook feed is full of temporary profile pictures featuring the hashtag, I’ve heard multiple spots on the radio, and people are talking about how important it is to talk about mental health. These conversations can absolutely reduce stigma, and that is a critical step.

But I’m also seeing a significant amount of skepticism, as well as deep personal pain.

Let’s Talk about the intersection of mental health and corporate culture

People are skeptical about another corporate initiative that hopes to raise awareness but may not do enough to shift the corporate cultures that actively harm people struggling with unsupported neurodivergence. It’s not just the stigma surrounding issues of mental health, unhealth, and diversity, it’s also the fact that there are very few acceptable ways to be a “productive member of society.” In order to be productive, you must be a worker, and mental health impacts productivity and expectations in the workplace.

As one resident physician described it, “I’m struggling a ton right now and the cultural narrative of “work=productive member of society and therefore notwork=lazy layabout who needs to get their shit together” is really bringing me down. Self care isn’t gratifying in the way working for 14 hours straight is for me.”

Unsupported neurodivergence fucks with productivity. It doesn’t mesh well with contemporary corporate culture, and no #letstalk hashtag will change that. Depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health challenges are viewed in terms of both absenteeism and presenteeism, and framed as economic issues – not because an inability to work means an inability to live in our culture, with its eroding base of social supports, but rather because of the cost to corporations.

Google absenteeism and you’ll see pages and pages of search results talking about the cost to corporations when full-time employees are absent, and mental health is a huge factor here. Absenteeism costs Canadian corporations an estimated 16.6 billion. And it’s talked about in terms of a problem that corporations need to fix – and that fix? Usually means reducing the number of days employees are absent.

But then corporations run into presenteeism. Presenteeism, or being physically present but disengaged, costs Canadian corporations 15-20 billion per year. Those are big numbers. Big numbers. The cost of unsupported neurodivergence for an individual is much smaller in terms of dollar value, and it’s much harder to find quantifiable numbers when discussing the personal costs. But does that mean the cost is less meaningful, less worth acknowledging and honouring?

And when employees are fired after disclosing mental health challenges, what is the recourse? How do we protect people from employment discrimination when the illness they are experiencing is still cloaked in mystery and fear and shame and stigma? How do we change corporate culture to make space for truly productive conversations about mental health when it is still not even remotely acceptable to speak openly with employers about depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar, or other neurodivergences?

So the skepticism regarding the Bell Let’s Talk program is justified. Reducing the stigma by sparking conversations is an important step, but it’s not enough. And individuals who are facing under- or unemployment as a result of their mental health challenges feel frustrated that it is a corporation leading (and financially benefiting from) this initiative.

Let’s Talk about funding for mental wellness supports

The money raised through the hashtag interactions is tracked, and a lot of money is put towards various grants and funds. The money supports research, and funds community supports for children and youth, aboriginal communities, and military families, among others. These are important initiatives.

But mental wellness supports are chronically underfunded. Valerie points out that, “It’s great we’re donating and sharing and hashtagging to Bell (who does not seem to have Alberta partners this year) but here in Calgary we just lost 2 low-cost therapy programs this month because they lost funding. These were the Alberta Health Services women’s health resources (which offered 6 free sessions of psychology/year for all women) and Jewish Family Services (which had a great individual/couple/family counseling program at a sliding scale).

It’s frustrating talking to folks who are motivated to start the work and having to tell them it’s public waitlists or expensive private options. Every day I wish I had more to offer our neighbours when we’re discussing referrals. I’m glad we’re confronting stigma, but disappointing to know that just because you’ve recognized the problem doesn’t mean the help will be easy-peasy to find.”

Let’s Talk about starting the conversations

For others, the conversation is enough to make the campaign worthwhile. Angie K. says, “For me, this initiative is a huge positive. The fact that conversations are being encouraged, and had is a sign of progress. A few years ago I would have still been too ashamed to admit I have mental health issues. It may not be as much or as fast as we would like, and there is still much work to do on the behalf of the companies to accommodate those with mental illness, but it is a good start.”

A lot of people’s responses to the initiative include that same cautious optimism – the conversations are good, but they’re not good enough. It’s a place to start, but it can’t be where the conversation ends.

Unfortunately, it is where the conversation ends a lot of the time.

In Part Two, we’ll talk about hospitalization and the “Scary Brain Stuff” in an interview with Emily, and about other long-term and alternative support options.