Continuing the conversation following Bell’s annual event
“Bell Let’s Talk” day is an annual occasion that encourages people to speak out about and end the stigma around mental illness. On this day, any tweet, Instagram post, or text that includes the #BellLetsTalk hashtag will prompt a five-cent donation by Bell to “mental health initiatives.”
The posts surrounding these hashtags display a similar theme. Scrolling through Facebook or Instagram reveals post after post following the same “fallen hero” narrative. These posts usually discuss anxiety, depression, or eating disorders. The person behind the post will retell a genuine and emotional story, followed by an inspirational message surrounding strength, recovery, or self-love.
I am not one to discredit how people heal. Mental health is a personal battle and, for many, being able to talk about it is an important part of the process of healing. That’s their prerogative. But, at what point do people start wanting and wishing they could participate in this event, receive an outpouring of support and likes, and have people telling them how strong and inspirational they are? We live in a society that craves attention; we manage our own personal brand through multiple social media networks and, once a year, we get to shift this narrative away from “look how amazing my life is” to “look how strong I am.”
We cultivate a culture that both idolizes and vilifies the mentally ill, in two distinct groups. We do this by rewarding stories of certain illness with social media popularity, but also with how we talk about mental illness. We talk about it in the past tense. We hear the stories from the point of view of the survivor and we gloss over the details. Mental illness is ugly. It is dirty, it is unclean, it is painful, it is heartbreaking. But, when we come to talk about our struggle, it takes so much more courage to discuss these aspects than to take a more removed stance. It is not the responsibility of a mentally ill person to reveal the intimate horrors of their illness, but we should never confuse the hero/survivor narrative with the entire range of mental illnesses or experiences.
All of those who participate in the event have the admirable goal of expanding the conversation on mental illness, and taking away the fear of those who are mentally ill. However, the truth is that, as a society, we aren’t really afraid of people with anxiety, depression, or eating disorders, yet these are disproportionately the illnesses we hear about on Bell Let’s Talk day. In actuality, we are afraid of those with Bipolar Affective Disorder, Schizophrenia, and personality disorders. We are afraid of the “crazy” people talking to themselves on the subway. We call one another “schizos” or casually say “I’m so bipolar today.” We think homeless people who are speaking nonsensically are going to hurt us, we make fun of manic people dressed in bright colours that sing on the street. In the United States, mentally ill people are ten times more likely to be placed in prison than in state psychiatric hospitals. There are not nearly enough beds in psychiatric wards for all those who need them, and mentally ill people who commit even minor crimes are much more likely to be given jail time, often without treatment. In reality, people suffering from psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia are at a much higher risk of harming themselves than the general public. Because we are uncomfortable with the visible signs of these disorders when left untreated, we prefer to lock individuals up in prison, in situations that exacerbate their mental illness through solitary confinement, lack of treatment, and with guards who do not have adequate training. Rather than fund programs and hospitals that could provide treatment, we elect to remove that which frightens us from the streets and place it behind strong penitentiary walls.
Why aren’t we afraid of depression and anxiety? Is it because we have succeeded in destigmatization—or is it because we skew our perspective of these illnesses, make them seem beautiful, even desirable, and depict their sufferers as nobly wounded warriors? There is a trend among university students that I have noticed: an attempt to “out-depress” or “out-anxiety” one another. People will get competitive about how sick they are, what dosage of meds they’re on, how badly they’re sleeping or eating. Self-harm scars and suicidality are a trump card in these debates. So why do people want to “win” at mental illness? Pity? Attention? I believe we have constructed a societal narrative in which being mentally ill, as it pertains to depression and anxiety, is seen as impressive. But this is not the case for the vast number of those suffering from other mental illnesses, nor is it true for the myriad of people suffering from unremitting depression and anxiety, for whom the only narrative is one of ongoing misery.
Suffering with mental illness is not beautiful, nor is it impressive, nor can anyone win in this “competition.” This isn’t to say if you are suffering and manage to find beauty and meaning in your illness, you shouldn’t express it. However, when these are the only narratives we hear, we skew the general perception of what living through mental illness is. And if these are the only narratives we hear, we oversimplify the societal problems surrounding mental health—such as the over-incarceration of mentally ill people, and the disproportionate difficulty racialized people have in getting in to see a counselor in comparison to white people. Nationally, 24 percent of deaths among 18-24 year olds are due to suicide. However, this rate is doubled in the Aboriginal community and tripled when looking specifically at Aboriginal women. Mental illness affects people of all ethnicities equally but the availability of treatment and support is massively disproportionate, with white people and those of higher socio-economic status receiving more. Of the six celebrities who are the face of the Canadian campaign this year, only one, Michel Mpambara, is non-white. We pay far too little attention to the intersection of racism and prejudice with mental illness and the experiences of those whose cultures make recognizing mental illness and finding help infinitely more difficult than it was for, say, Bell spokesperson, Serena Ryder.
To be clear, the creation of a day to discuss mental illness, and especially the millions of dollars in donations it produces, is commendable, especially coming from a national corporation able to reach a wide audience. Bell is right to draw attention to mental health, and has made an important impact on the mental health discussion. However, as this discussion is implemented on social media, we foster the image that mental illness is limited to hero stories of those who suffer through and triumph over depression and anxiety. This story is one small fraction of the reality of mental illness, and does a disservice to those who cannot tell their own similar hero narratives. It is an injustice to those who are afflicted by more serious, chronic mental illnesses, and ignores many of the complexities of race, gender, and financial status that we must also be discussing. Let’s talk about those problems, too.