Let’s do more than talk

Canadians are beginning to recognize January 28 as an important day. Not only do we begin seeing the advertisements for Bell Let’s Talk day well in advance of the 28th; not only do a lot of us share their messages promoting help-seeking and mental health initiatives; but we also have begun to see a clear pattern of opinion pieces and news stories challenging Bell. It might be worth putting together some of the criticism here:

Michael Spratt reminded us that the millions of dollars Bell donates to mental health is “peanuts compared to its $23.45-billion annual revenue.” Even more disturbingly, he investigated Bell’s exclusive contract with the Ontario government to provide telephone services in jails. Under the Bell contract, Ontario inmates could only call landline telephone numbers and paid exorbitant collect-call rates. As he says, “Bell has never disclosed its profits from this exclusive and predatory phone racket, though it could amount to more money than it charitably donates during its “Bell Let’s Talk” campaign each year.” While Ontario has changed providers, Bell still holds the contract for federal prisons.

Maria McLean revealed that when she asked for a mental health leave from her job at Bell, they fired her.

Mandy Pipher argued that “during the worst years of my own mental health struggles — rough, often debilitating years — I’d dread the annual Bell mental-health-themed advertising blitz. Because that’s how it seemed: like advertising for a corporation dripping in the money desperately needed by many of those suffering from mental illness, with genuine concern for mental health sufferers a distant second.”

Hana Shafi argues that the faces of Let’s Talk are “predominantly wealthy white folks with successful recovery stories” and this obscures the fact that “with limited access to affordable housing and stigma around mental illness in the workplace,” there is a systemic connection between poverty and mental illness that Bell is avoiding.

Danielle Landry poignantly challenges us: “Let’s stop positioning disabled people as charity cases through a-nickel-for-every-text campaigns. Let’s talk about the erosion of our social systems through corporate greed. Let’s ask why Bell has not instituted any programs to support its low-income customers, such as if they need a reprieve from paying their bills during a hospital stay. Let’s talk about why it is not okay that we have to rely on corporate sponsorship to sustain our mental health system. Let’s ask if corporate influence serves to deter (or co-opt) the kinds of radical approaches and critical thinking that are essential for challenging the mental health system to improve and innovate.

Philip Moscovitch argues that “It does no good to raise awareness if you have an underfunded mobile crisis team that only has the capacity to go out on calls for 12 hours a day, or if patients wait months for assessment, or if you can’t provide stable, supportive housing for those who need it so they can recover and carry on with happy and productive lives.”

So, here we are again, on January 28. And Bell has exerted a lot of pressure on Canadian universities and academics to support and share their message. But this year needs to be different. Your Faculty Association does hope we can talk about mental health. But let’s begin by acknowledging that, just like Bell, we are part of the problem.

In the past year, as we have shifted our classes online due to COVID-19, the mental health impact has been severe. According to a recent survey, “graduate students increasingly reported experiencing anxiety, depression, feelings of helplessness, loneliness, or being overwhelmed compared to before the pandemic. Seventy-two percent indicated that these feelings increased as a result of COVID-19. Twenty-six percent of respondents are now considering taking a long term leave of absence.” According to OCUFA, “62% of students and 76% of faculty members feel that online learning has negatively impacted the quality of university education in Ontario” (2020). “Among faculty, areas of highest concern were: the ability to adequately teach and support students, the ability to sustain their desired level of professional development, their personal mental health, and their ability to perform outside roles and responsibilities” (OCUFA 2020).

What are we going to do, as a university, to truly support the mental health of students, staff, and faculty? It has to add up to more than a few pennies for a few texts. It has to be more than just talk. FAUW would like to encourage you to share this post on social media, but also to comment on some of the tangible things you plan to do yourself to help students, and some of the tangible changes you think the University needs to make to support our community.

Need to talk? The Employee Assistance Program provides free confidential counselling to Waterloo employees and their families.

If you want to participate today, visit the Bell Let’s Talk post-secondary landing page for a toolkit and suggested activities.

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