Every year in January, Canadian telecommunications company Bell holds a campaign called #BellLetsTalk, encouraging people to Tweet and post about the stigma surrounding mental health. For every Tweet, Bell donates 5 cents to a multitude of mental health initiatives all over Canada, ranging from community funds to major gifts.
While the impacts of the campaign are transparent by a quick Google search, I’m willing to say that it’s simply not enough, and in fact, might even be harmful. This is not a woe-is-me story, but I’d like to use my personal experiences to illustrate why we need to work harder and do more to support those who are suffering with mental illness, or may not even know that they’re suffering.
#BellLetsTalk Allows Institutions to Scapegoat Serious Systemic Issues
The University of Waterloo is one of the most prestigious schools in Canada. We have around 30 000 undergraduate students and 6000 graduate students. Last year in the course of 3 months, 2 students at the same dorm that I lived in when I was in first year killed themselves. These are just the suicides that the university has to acknowledge because they happen on campus. UW has a large population of students who leave campus every term to go on co-op, and an even larger population who live off campus, so there is no accurate way to gather statistics on mental illness within the school community. During the same time that the two students killed themselves, I tried to seek support from on campus resources, beginning with counselling services. After seeing an intake counsellor and a social worker, I was put on a waitlist and not offered an appointment until 3 months later, weeks before exam season was about to start.
I tried again with mental health services on campus (I don’t know what the difference is and honestly I’m not even sure if the people working here know what the difference between mental health services and counselling services). After a few sessions with a psychologist, I was diagnosed with Persistent Depressive Disorder and Anxiety Disorder. The psychologist started running down a list of my possible options for treatment on and off campus, most being followed by her saying “but.. there is a waitlist to get on these”, or, “This program doesn’t start until September”, or, “it might be out of your price range for treatment options”.
There has been much speculation from UW students on whether or not the school owes us proper mental health services. There has also been controversy regarding sexual harassment, pay, and working conditions for the mental health support workers here on campus. Of course, there is no public addressing of these issues, but the president of the school sends out an e-mail every #BellLetsTalk day highlighting the options and departments that students can reach out to, with no real action on addressing why mental health/counselling services are different departments with little cohesion.
It doesn’t address the stigma people have towards themselves
.. and it certainly does not address the stigma that doctors, nurses, and many of the front line mental crisis workers have towards those with mental illness. Before the holidays, I hit a rough patch and went to the Grand River Hospital because I felt incredibly desperate and at risk– I was at my wits end and felt my life was at risk if I stayed home. Can you just stop and think about how awful someone has to feel to go to the hospital to save themselves. I met with 5 different people- a triage nurse, intake nurse, crisis nurse, psychiatrist, and a physician. Each person I spoke with got increasingly less sympathetic and were asking me all the wrong and incredibly insensitive questions. When told that I have PDS, I was interrogated and berated for not seeking help earlier. It was my fault that I was there, seeking help. The psychiatrist didn’t even know my name. This further instilled the toxic and self-deprecating attitude that I had towards myself at that time.
It just blew my mind because people with mental illness should be able to say “it was my depression talking, not me”, and not feel bad about it. I can’t even convince myself that it’s something acceptable to say, how can I expect those who are close to me to believe it? The Bell campaign addresses how we should treat people with mental illness, but not how people with mental illness should treat themselves, or how medical professionals who don’t necessarily specialize in mental crises.
What can we do come January 31?
Think beyond what a person who doesn’t suffer with mental issues should do to stop the stigma, and more about how the stigma affects institutions, leaders of these institutions, and the people that suffer with mental illness. Post wisely, and consider how a toxic stigma really impacts how we shape the lives of so many people.