Bell uses their feel-good ad campaign of #BellLetsTalk to distract us from the disgusting activities they partake in. Photo: Bell/Courtesy
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Corporatization of mental health

I could go on for a long time about Instagram activists, but I decided to pick the topic of Bell Let’s Talk as my specific hill to die on. Many people have seen the posts on Instagram and the ads on TV for Bell Canada’s annual initiative to raise awareness and funding in an effort to combat the stigma surrounding mental health. 

The ad campaign commits to donating five cents per each call, text, and social media post which uses the hashtag #BellLetsTalk or the French version, #BellCausePourLaCause. This campaign has been going on for a couple of years now and has done some good, I think, but it’s time some attention was brought to the activities of Bell Canada in an effort to take a more critical approach to the matter. 

Bell is a controversial company, even if we ignore the treatment of employees and malicious corporate practices. Bell Canada is one of the few powerful companies in charge of Canadian telecommunications. Symptoms of Bell’s oligopoly due to its market share of the industry are present in everyday life, as Canada’s data plans are some of the most expensive in the world. Even so, Bell uses their feel-good ad campaign of #BellLetsTalk to distract us from the disgusting activities they partake in. 

Bell, let’s talk money. One of the main critiques of #BellLetsTalk is the corporatization of mental health. I mean this in the way that Bell Canada gets a lot of free advertising from this campaign, as well as a large tax credit from their donations. It’s highly unlikely you would see any criticism of this practice from academic institutions because Bell donates some of the money raised in the ad campaigns directly to academic institutions such as Queens University, McGill University, the University of British Columbia, Western University, and many more across Canada (as stated on their website explaining where their donations go). 

Bell has committed $129,588,747.75 to mental health initiatives, which seems like a lot, but in the grand scheme of things, this is just a drop in the bucket. In 2020, Bell Canada reported an annual revenue of $22.88 billion. If my math is correct, then Bell only contributed 0.0053 per cent of their revenue to mental health. The amount that Bell committed is slightly more than the value of the COVID-19 subsidies they received from the government. This fact would be understandable if Bell Canada were a struggling company, but it’s clear that they are not. So, this drop from their ocean of money only makes a small splash when compared to the amount they could have donated. 

Bell, let’s talk about prisons. It’s something which has long needed reform, as there is an overrepresentation of BIPOC, and more specifically, Indigenous people in Canadian prisons, and the proportion of offenders who served jail sentences of six months or more that reoffended is very high

Bell adds to the pressures of a tough system by profiting off of inmates with mental illness and preventing them from accessing mental health services. The system in place only allows collect calls, and inmates are unable to call cell phones. The calls are limited to 20 minutes, and charges generally go to the families of the inmates. This prevents some inmates from reaching the necessary support systems due to fiscal restraints, which is problematic for their mental health

Speaking of work, Bell, let’s talk about how you treat your employees. Though this is alleged, the company has been accused of treating its employees with mental health issues poorly. For example, Maria McLean, who was a radio host in Grand Falls, New Brunswick at a radio station owned by Bell, was terminated an hour after sharing her mental health illness struggles with co-workers and her supervisor, to whom she gave a doctor’s note in order to request time off to adjust to new medication. 

This is not just a one-off of unethical practices of the Bell corporation and its conglomerates. More than 600 people reached out to CBC after an article was published investigating the high pressure of the aggressive sales targets Bell has. In many different emails, both current and former employees stated that the Bell work environment completely disregards one of the four pillars of Bell Let’s Talk. If that is what they call workplace leadership, then I would call them poor leaders. It must be mentioned that Bell refutes all these allegations — it’s still hard to believe with so many people coming forward. 

During the pandemic, Bell decided to lay off hundreds of people. This probably does nothing to benefit the ex-employees mental wellbeing and is pretty hypocritical of the self-proclaimed workplace leaders of mental health.

Bell, let’s talk about mental health. The ad campaign prioritizes and whitewashes mental health. The campaign does not destigmatize the mental health of POC, as there is no talk of the distinct mental health struggles that they may face. It prioritizes more popular struggles that the majority may face over others that the minority faces. 

While I agree with the idea of eliminating the stigma surrounding mental illness, I think there is a better way of doing it. Bell Let’s Talk day has helped a lot of people, but an ethical dilemma arises when it comes to my support of this ad campaign. A company that holds an oligopoly over telecommunications in Canada treats its employees poorly, prioritizes certain struggles over others, benefits massively from the success of their disingenuous campaign, and their exploitive treatment of prisoners probably should not be considered a role model for other companies to follow.