January 28, 2021 marks the undecennial Bell Let’s Talk Day, on which one of the Canadian telecommunications leaders Bell Canada donates 5¢ towards mental health initiatives for every applicable text, call, tweet with #BellLetsTalk hashtag, social media view, or use of a branded filter. With online events, this year’s campaign has a special focus on the pandemic and its impact on the mental and emotional health of Canadians.
“With COVID-19 affecting every aspect of our lives, Canadians are feeling the impact of the pandemic on their mental health,” Bell writes on its campaign page. “Now more than ever, mental health matters and every action counts.”
To celebrate, Bell Let’s Talk is hosting virtual events to boost awareness and education about mental wellbeing, including special program “In This Together,” webinars, documentaries, and TIFF screenings. In Newfoundland and Labrador, over 2,400 junior high students will receive free breakfast and engage in a discussion of youth mental health.
In conversation with the Toronto Star, Bell Let’s Talk chair Mary Deacon said that the organizers wanted to put the psychological ravages caused by the pandemic at the forefront of this year’s Bell Let’s Talk Day.
“When we began planning in April for what would be Bell Let’s Talk 2021, it was evident we needed to acknowledge the reality we’re all living in, and what the research is showing on the impact of the pandemic on people’s mental health,” said Deacon, who worked at Centre for Addiction and Mental Health for ten years.
“Every person I talked to would inevitably talk about the struggle they were having with the social isolation, the lack of routine, the fear of the future.”
Celebrity ambassadors of the 2021 campaign include Michael Bublé and Maxim Martin, who both appear on social media promotional videos that raise 5¢ per view.
In 2020, Bell Let’s Talk Day set a new single-day record with 154,387,425 messages across all platforms, raising $7,719,371.25.
For those unsure of how to initiate dialogue about mental health, the campaign also offers a conversation guide to facilitate community and interpersonal discussion. The guide recommends example scripts, talking points, and exercises.
“There are important reasons to start talking about mental illness,” the toolkit reads.
“While one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness at some point in their life, most will be cautious about talking to a coworker, friend, or family member about the issue, let alone seek treatment.”
The Bell Let’s Talk initiative, however, has received its fair share of criticism from detractors, who allege it is but a marketing tactic under a veneer of goodwill and charity.
In 2019, Jasmine Vido conducted a critical investigation of the campaign as her master’s thesis at the University of Windsor. She argued that Bell is reaping “financial reward in exchange for the publicity of the campaign” that has helped the country’s largest telecommunications company one-up its competition.
Vido argued that Bell turned mental health awareness into a commodity that the company sows and harvests. The campaign “makes people feel socially responsible” to eradicate the taboo of mental illness while simultaneously promoting the company’s positive reputation as participants “mindlessly [endorse] its services.”
“For Bell, this marketing strategy is brilliant,” Vido wrote. “Bell has found a way to generate online discussion – not only about mental health, but about Bell itself.”
When asked about the corporate overtones of the campaign, Deacon said there will always be criticism.
“I would not have gone to Bell if I did not believe there was truly authentic engagement, and I know that to be true from people in leadership positions at Bell back then and still today.”
Since the inaugural Bell Let’s Talk Day, it has amassed a total of 1,168,302,700 interactions, which is the same as every single Canadian texting, calling, tweeting or otherwise engaging with the campaign about 31 times since 2011.
This engagement translated to a grand total of CAD$113,415,135 that Bell has committed to mental health initiatives in the form of community grants for youth, Indigenous communities, and military families. According to the campaign, Bell Let’s Talk has supported 4,422,134 Canadians with access to mental health resources.
This year, the campaign launched a Post-Secondary Fund to help educational institutions across the country implement what is called the National Standard of Canada for Mental Health and Well-Being for Post-Secondary Students — or simply, the Standard. The cross-Canada program is “is a set of flexible, voluntary guidelines to help post-secondary institutions support the mental-health and well-being of their students.”
Those eligible can apply for the Post-Secondary Fund — as well as a Community Fund and a Diversity Fund — on the campaign website.
The awareness campaign, founded in September 2010 and inaugurated in January 2011, is designed to normalize conversations about mental health as well as fulfill its four pillars: anti-stigma; care and access; research; and workplace health.
“At that time, most people were not talking about mental illness. But the numbers spoke volumes about the urgent need for action,” the company said about the infancy of the campaign.
Bell had initially envisioned Bell Let’s Talk as just a five-year project. In March 2020, Bell renewed the project for another five years, with a funding commitment of at least CAD$155 million.
“Building on ten years of increased awareness and acceptance around mental health, Bell Let’s Talk is focused on engaging Canadians to take action to create positive change in mental health.”
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