Now, this is a topic that is close to my heart. Mental illness runs in my family. Indeed, it was responsible for taking my father's life. I think that it is safe to say, then, that I am anything but dismissive about the significance of efforts to battle stigma related to mental health issues.
It also stands to reason that I would be as thrilled as anyone that Bell invites Canadians to talk, right? Well, wrong, actually. While I watch so many others talk about how wonderful it is, how it is an initiative worth getting excited about, how at the very least, it is something as opposed to nothing, I am the grump on the Facebook thread trying to pop everyone else's balloon.
Again, don't get me wrong. I think people need to talk about mental illness. For the most part, talking is good. It makes people feel better, more connected, to one another. Indeed, talking can actually be therapeutic in its own right (which is why I think that pretty much every single person in the world would benefit from seeing a psychotherapist). But, I also think the "better than nothing" rhetoric of awareness-raising initiatives such as the Let's Talk campaign can be dangerous. It is, in my opinion, possible to have the wrong type of conversations, the kind that cause more harm than good. Just as small talk at a party amongst strangers can cause someone to feel isolation instead of connection, it is possible to talk about mental illness in a way that drives our society further from mental health.
And, I'm sorry to say, that's the sort of conversation I believe that Bell has been asking us to have. Despite appearances to the contrary, and despite the obvious interest of everyday Canadians, I don't think Bell is truly interested in provoking a conversation about and around mental health. Or, perhaps somewhere in the centre of this morass of intention there is a hard kernel of legitimate care. I cannot be certain. What I am nearly certain of is that Bell is more concerned about initiating a conversation about its own altruism. (And we must call the corporate entity "it" here, I'm afraid. Bell is not, and never will be the oft-used and more human-sounding "they" though many individuals toil under its banner.) For, in the face of a country disgusted with years of telecommunications monopoly, Bell seeks to change the conversation. Let's talk about mental health really means let's not talk about how Bell is gouging consumers and exploiting employees. It means, let's talk instead about how Bell is a corporation with heart.
Well, that's nonsense. In fact, there is a very different kind of conversation about mental health that needs to occur and it's one that Bell doesn't want to have anything to do with.
I think we really need to talk about the relationship between capitalism and mental illness. This may sound strange. After all, we live in a society that says mental illness is a chemical issue that should be addressed pharmaceutically. (Specifically, I am speaking here about the two relatively-pretty poster children for mental illness: depression and anxiety. We don't, as a nation, generally speak of the many other forms of mental illness that exist. Schizophrenia, for example, isn't allowed on the poster at this time.) However, that would suggest that mental illness would be prevalent in any human society, regardless of economic system. A compelling case, except for one small problem: evidence suggests that the impact of pharmaceuticals on mental illness may be significantly smaller than we have been led to believe -- it suggests, in fact, that the difference between anti-depressants and placebos may be clinically meaningless.
Why the reliance on medication, then? Well, this is where we come back to capitalism. There is an incentive for pharmaceutical companies to market their drugs, just as there is an incentive for them to induce psychiatrists and general practitioners to prescribe those drugs. This isn't particularly aberrant or corrupt behaviour; the logic of a capitalist system demands that corporations find a market for their commodities. After all, if you can't sell the thing you're making, then you can't make profit. Simple as that.
There are a couple of lessons we can draw from this. First, perhaps mental health cannot be reduced to chemistry after all. If this is so, or even if not, if we are to allow for the fact that environment might be as important as chemistry, then social context must be brought into the equation. Within a social context, individual circumstances (such as family culture, for example) are an unavoidable environmental factor, as is the broader environmental context which we all share. And that context is capitalism.
This brings me to the second lesson, which is that capitalism is not a solution to mental health issues. The pharmaceutical industry, like any other industry in a capitalist society, is concerned with one thing and one thing alone: generating profit. Mental health drugs are a commodity. To the companies that produce them, they are simply something that can be made and sold (because there is a market that demands the product). In this way, they are no different than a pair of shoes or bubble gum. Or cell phones and cable television, for that matter.
And that, for me, is really the crux of the issue with the Bell Let's Talk program. Like Eli Lilly and Pfizer, Bell isn't really concerned with mental health. It's concerned with making profits. It needs to be. That is its reason for being, it's raison d'être. Whatever service a corporation provides, whatever objects it sells, it exists to generate money. In this case, Bell thinks, no doubt, that by attaching itself to a cause that people care about, it will appear to be a gentler, kinder, more giving company than its monopolistic competitor, Rogers. And that will translate into dollars. Don't imagine that it won't. The plan to create and nurture the notion of Bell as a benevolent group of human beings who care about other human beings, as opposed to a corporate entity that cares only about money is part and parcel of Let's Talk. It is simply a marketing ploy. Every time it is tweeted out, one might as well be tweeting, "Buy Bell!"
The issue here is not that Bell is doing something particularly egregious. Certainly, I find it personally distasteful that they have hypocritically and cynically chosen to pretend to care about mental health in order to improve its brand (even as it places more and more pressure on consumers by raising prices, and more and more pressure on its own employees by setting increasingly-unreasonable financial goals each subsequent year, as all corporations do). No, the problem is really that we are looking for a capitalist institution to solve a problem that is caused by capitalism in the first place. That cannot work.
Capitalism is a form of social and economic organization that isolates, alienates, exploits, and dehumanizes people inherently and systematically. What I mean by that is that in a capitalist system, if individuals who work on the side of capital behave rationally (by doing their basic jobs properly), they will necessarily isolate, alienate, exploit, and dehumanize other people (and, frankly, due to the pressures of competition, they will likely feel many of these consequences themselves). Corporate executives and managers are hired to boost productivity and reduce costs. That means compelling workers to work as long and hard as possible, for as little pay as they can. There is a human, psychological cost to this pressure. It also means fostering competition amongst employees for jobs and resources. This is an environment that produces stress, fatigue, and mistrust. These are all tremendous pressures upon mental health. Likewise, employers themselves are subject to the stress of satisfying shareholders. Profits are never high enough; there is always a competitor out there trying to outperform their business. In these ways, capitalism creates the conditions for mental illness.
My point is this, then: the struggle for mental health is a struggle, too, against capitalism. It is also a struggle against racism, homophobia, gender inequality and all other systems of bigotry and bias. Each of these systems of injustice causes systematic psychological harm and none of them can be addressed without attention to the others.
So, let's talk. But, let's not talk about how generous Bell is. Let's talk about how the vice-grip of capitalism is hurting human beings all over the world. And let's talk about the fact that the pain is as much mental as physical. That's the kind of intimate conversation that brings people together. It's the kind of conversation I'll tweet about all day long.