Today is the annual Bell Let’s Talk Day and I have some feelings about it. This is not meant to detract in any way from the positives of this campaign, such as the people who have felt seen and validated by other people opening up about their mental illnesses and the people who felt supported after sharing their own struggles with mental health. These are fantastic things and I hope they continue.
However, there are always two sides to every story, and I would like to talk more about the other side of this story today. Namely, we need to talk about the fact that Bell actually contributes directly to mental illness in our society and then profits off of it. That is what I intend to cover in this post, in addition to what I believe we actually need to achieve meaningful change in terms of ending the stigma around mental illness and promoting a mentally healthy society overall.
How Bell contributes to a mentally unhealthy society
Bell is a wealthy multinational corporation that contributes directly to income disparity and, as a result, poverty
Poverty is one of the leading causes of mental illness. When top executives at Bell are making several millions of dollars a year in salary, while the majority of their front-line staff are paid minimum wage, they are directly contributing to the pervasive wealth inequality that fuels mental illness in our society. The minimum wage is still not above the poverty line in most places despite advocacy for this.
The truly sad part is that a significant portion of mental illness would simply vanish if poverty were eradicated. Even with investments from Bell and others into mental health services, poverty-related mental illness is not really treatable since the root cause (poverty) has not been solved. The best that mental health professionals can do in these cases is to teach coping strategies to folks so that they can survive within the shitty reality of our highly inequitable society.
Bell controls the means to what has become an essential service in our society and then sells it to us at a grossly inflated rate that many cannot afford
Let’s face it, people need access to phones and the internet to survive nowadays. Without access to telecommunications technology, people cannot participate in the essential systems in our society. Even the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has declared that high-speed internet is an essential service that is fundamental to quality of life.
It goes without saying that being unable to access an essential service and fully participate in society has a significant negative impact on mental health. And, yet, many people can ill afford to access the services that Bell has a monopoly over. To add insult to injury, as the world is increasingly going online, so too are several mental health and support services that are needed to serve particularly vulnerable and isolated people who cannot access these services.
Bell’s workplace culture does not support mental wellness
Several employees have spoken publicly against the workplace culture at Bell, which is especially frustrating given their Let’s Talk campaign. Various sources have cited panic-inducing targets, a culture of micro-management, and employees being fired for having mental health issues, among other things. When their own workplace atmosphere does not support mental health, how can corporations like Bell consider themselves to be a leader on mental wellness?
I have worked for and been educated within several places that talk a big game about practicing “self-care,” without actually doing anything as an organization that makes it easier to do this. This is because there are still a lot of people who view mental illness as an indivdual problem, rather than a systemic one. We need to understand for once and for all that mental health is a societal issue that requires collective policy responses, not mani/pedis and bubble baths.
How Bell profits from mental illness
After all of this, Bell has the audacity to profit off of the issues that they have created and maintained. First of all, they charge exorbitant fees for their telecommunications services; far, far more than it costs them and far, far more than many people can afford. People like the minimum wage workers that they employ, and people like those living in the poverty that they contribute to.
Second, they profit from the exposure of the Let’s Talk campaign in general. Hundreds of thousands of people and celebrities will be using #BellLetsTalk today, which increases Bell’s exposure exponentially. This exposure increases demand for Bell’s products and services, which leads to increased profits. These profits are made off of the backs of our community members who are made vulnerable through policy decisions, many of whom will never directly benefit from it.
No massive corporation ever does anything unless it serves their bottom line. Period.
What we need instead: Less talk, more action
So, what do we really need to end the stigma against mental illness and create a mentally healthy society overall? I have some thoughts on this as well.
Real investment in mental health services
Mental health care is health care and it should be treated as such under federal health policies and provincial health plans. Full stop.
A culture of community care
Self-care is nice. I love self-care. Heck, I wrote an article about it. But self-care is not effective to manage collective issues, and mental illness is a collective health issue. We need to shift toward a community of care mindset. (Also see this wonderful piece by Deanna Zandt).
From an individual perspective, it looks like a shift away from the belief that people are only as valuable as what they can produce in the capitalist (un)free market. This mentality is not serving any of us. People are inherently worthy, regardless of their ability, and the sooner we embrace that reality, the happier we will be.
From a workplace perspective, this looks like paid vacation, paid personal time, flex time, and work-from-home options. It looks like truly inclusive and accessible workplaces. It looks like effective mental health policy. My current employer provides all of these, and that is extremely important to maintaining my mental health, especially as a parent and a Social Worker, as these things put me at increased risk of stress and burnout. It makes me a better employee too.
From a policy perspective, it looks like universal basic income (UBI) that is above the poverty line, living wages, workplace protections, unions, and universal childcare. If we can all afford to live in safe and accessible housing of our choice, put food on our tables while also keeping the lights on, have access to phones and internet, put our kids in extracurricular activities, take sick time without fear of losing our jobs, and take the occasional vacation, then our collective mental health would improve dramatically. And if you are the kind of person that values fiscal responsibility, these programs are a lot cheaper in the long-run, because they alleviate massive costs from other major systems in our society, such as health care, education, and justice.
A cultural shift away from capitalism
Capitalism is at the heart of rampant wealth inequality and, as discussed, this inequality is responsible for the creation and maintenance of many mental illnesses in our society. That is nothing to scoff at. Given that the inherent values of capitalism are scarcity, greed, power, domination, competition, and control, is this hardly a surprise. We are social beings and, as such, connection and collaboration are vital components to our health and wellness. Capitalism is directly opposed to these necessities of a healthy, happy, and productive life. Are these the values that should be defining our society? I implore you to think bigger.
As individuals, we need to measure more than our commodities to determine our success. What about character? Generosity? Empathy and compassion?
As workplaces, we need to measure more than just profits to determine our success. What about diversity, inclusion, and accessibility? Worker satisfaction? Work/life balance?
As a society, we need to measure more than GDP to determine our success. What about happiness? Health? Quality of life?
Just imagine what that might look like. It looks pretty damn amazing to me.
Tina Cumby, MSW, RSW, is an independent writer and creator of free content for mental health professionals. She has been employed as a social worker for four years and has another year of case management and policy development experience. She works primarily with adults living at the intersections of poverty, disability, and trauma at all levels of practice (micro, mezzo, and macro). Tina is particularly well versed in social work case management and student supervision.