Apparently Bell thinks the world revolves around them. Earlier in the week I woke up to find my Twitter newsfeed trending to #BellLetsTalk, the company’s own efforts to “raise awareness” about mental health. Throughout the day it became inescapable: posts all over Facebook and Twitter turned into advertising on certain websites I went on, as well as being the sole advertisement during the commercial breaks for MTV’s online programming. All I wanted to do was watch Teen Mom 2 in peace!
From the minute I woke up to the time I went to bed, Bell was everywhere. I voiced my opinions on Twitter and Facebook only for those opposing my views to argue that if Bell was raising awareness, we shouldn’t care about their selfish interests as a company because it is a positive act regardless. I was also accused of not taking the issue of mental health seriously enough.
Why do I care? At first I was annoyed that everywhere I went online I saw Bell’s campaign. However, it soon hit me: Bell’s presence was literally penetrating into my everyday life! I wanted to post about this topic earlier in the week but the more I thought about how angry I was that they were using mental health as a marketing campaign, I also realized that it isn’t that black and white and I have an obligation to complicate this narrative and expose different sides to the issue, not simply reduce it to good or bad. Here are some of my thoughts and observations.
World Mental Health Day is on October 10
The World Health Organization (WHO)’s official campaign for mental health awareness was months ago, but many people forgot that when Bell chose to promote it in their terms. Bell’s name alone overshadowed the whole campaign, one that is worthy of recognition alone, aside from any other secondary associations. Mental health awareness was promoted within a commercial context which served to distract from the issue at hand. The most notable thing about the campaign was the shiny advertising and sentiments of responsible, benevolent corporate behavior which detracted from more serious recognition of a societal issue.
Another issue with this is that in Bell taking a separate day to promote mental health awareness, they discredit other organizations or people doing research on the topic. They exploit and take advantage of the fact that the majority of the public know who they are as a corporation to make it seem like they are doing a public justice and in the meantime overshadow and overpower other campaigns that are dedicated solely to mental health awareness and are more invested in developing programs to help people affected by disorder.
Bell is encouraging people to use their services to raise awareness. There is an implicit message to people that they can only help others if they have made the right choice in service provider. Not only that but it is an attempt to drive out the competition and attempt to have more control over the media so that there is less diversity in the kinds of information available to the public. What Bell doesn’t want you to know is that they are attempting a merger with Astral media which will allow them more penetration into the market and thus our everyday lives, and this mental health awareness campaign is an attempt to present themselves as responsible and caring of the public to allow the merger to be approved.
Bell’s advertisements presented sugar coated imagery of mental illness. One of the ads in particular featured a professional and pleasant looking 30-something-year-old woman who was changing her voicemail to say that she would be out of the office for the day. She then bends over her kitchen counter and sighs, in obvious distress. A little blurb runs across the screen about how many people are affected by mental illness each year. This kind of commercial totally ignores the realities and complexities of mental illness and fails to illustrate how mental illness is not always pretty. What about disorders like schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder? How about a realistic portrayal of the extreme behaviors that define common mental illnesses?
The main problem with this is that in portraying mental illnesses like depression, Bell disregards the mental illnesses with the most stigma and highlights characteristics of an illness that people can relate to and sympathize with. Most people know what it feels to be extremely sad, and hence are more likely to have compassion and patience for a disorder that they can relate to or understand. Common disorders that people do not come in contact with often are further blocked out from social recognition.
Category vs Continuum
I’m taking a Sociology class at U of T right now and the professor is an expert source of knowledge: he’s a sociologist who has done actual research within the field of mental health and his own work has mainly focused on the study of distress and disorder, examining how the two concepts are actually designated as separate kinds of mental problems. According to predominant views, distress is a normal part of everyday experience and tends to fluctuate according to different life events (eg divorce or death of a loved one) or regular experiences of stress (eg living in a bad neighborhood), and its intensity can be measured along a continuum, or a scale from high to low. Disorder, on the other hand, is the result of a biological dysfunction which may be compounded by experiences of regular distress. According to this view, disorder=mental illness.
Why is this problematic? Plain and simple, categories separate and target certain types of people and treat them accordingly. Bell’s whole message was about eliminating stigma but this is exactly what the definition of mental illness does. I may get a lot of shit for saying this but everybody has problems, and everyone goes through periods in their life where they experience better or worse mental health. By placing people into boxes which designate them as either ill or not, we miss helping everyone who could possibly use it and in the process also miss creating different levels of help for different levels of distress.
At the end of the day I am for awareness, and not just mental health awareness but awareness of the processes at work behind these “helping” campaigns. I’m not totally against what Bell was trying to do because they had money to donate regardless, and did donate it to a cause that is affecting a vast majority of the Canadian population that is often overlooked and underfunded. It’s important, however, to be critically aware and ask questions about these events because otherwise we conform to a point where we misinterpret what is harming us versus what is good for us. Many downfalls in our society stem from remaining passive and accepting things at face value, so if nothing else it is crucial that we do the research and investigate the costs and benefits, and learn to dig deeper. I know that my criticisms are somewhat preliminary but I believe it’s a first and necessary step to facilitating significant change: change at the ways in which approach social issues.
If you’re interested in this issue here’s some further reading, articles that I read in the process of gathering my thoughts for this post as well as information about the Bell and Astral Media merger proposal. Educate yourself and BE AWARE!