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Beyond 'wellness': How Bell Let's Talk limits our understanding of mental illness

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Woman holds happy face sign. Image credit: Sydney Sims/Unsplash

Every year since 2010, the Bell Let's Talk campaign ramps up through January with national advertising campaigns, celebrity spokespeople, and promotion by workplaces, universities, and governmental officials. The campaign asks for voices that "wear the label" of mental illness to speak publicly in order to promote destigmatization. Bell incentivizes this by tying their donations toward psychological services to the public's use of the #BellLetsTalk hashtag.

Let's Talk takes up significant room in public discussion of mental illness in Canada, and it's revealing to question the campaign's framing of mental illness, as well as its ties to a capitalist understanding of health.

Bell Let's Talk simultaneously individualizes the issue of mental illness and corporatizes the solution.

The campaigning of high-performing athletes, politicians, and broadcasters as spokespeople for Let's Talk reinforces a widespread idea that one can, should, and must modify one's behaviour to improve "wellness" in order to achieve.

Let's Talk consistently promotes a wellness model of mental illness. With this comes the language of "self-care" as it is interpreted in mainstream consumerist culture. Gone are the radical roots of the term, attributed to writer and activist Audre Lorde, who argued that "caring for myself ... is an act of political warfare." Rather, we find the term appropriated in the language of wellness. In a 2020 CTV eTalk episode dedicated to Bell Let's Talk, Justin Trudeau was questioned about how he practices "self-care" in a high-pressure job. Trudeau's response was that he focuses on "balance" in his life.

As Let's Talk rolls out across campuses and workplaces, wellness promotion includes techniques to practice "self-care" and to "de-stress," such as yoga, meditation, and other forms of relaxation and finding balance.

The wellness advocacy of Let's Talk often centres on relatively minor states of mental distress that might be alleviated by individual behaviour modification. While such techniques and training may be helpful to many, the focus on individual wellness as the totality of mental health activism limits our scope and eclipses experiences that extend beyond issues of individual behaviour.

We can see the wellness model, too, in who is chosen to be Let's Talk spokespeople, many of whom are successful in their fields. Most of the spokespeople are profiled for how they managed to achieve in normative terms despite mental illness, trauma, or addiction. Let's Talk promotes stories of "overcoming" through personal willpower and effort.

As this is a capitalist society, success and wellness figure in terms of being productive, labouring, and succeeding in a given career. Indeed, a fundamental definition of disability in many instances is a condition or perceived condition that disallows one from working.

With the assumption that mental disability, difference, and distress indicate unwellness or illness, the goal becomes a cure, a return to "normal." Normal, in this case, represents health and non-disruptive behaviour.

Within the wellness model, those who cannot be cured can only be pitied, or blamed for not trying hard enough. So we divide mental states and ways of being into divisions of wellness and unwellness, sickness and health.

Seeing mental disability, difference, and distress as an issue of wellness always individualizes the situation, and rarely, if ever, takes into account diverse contextual forces and oppressions that put some populations more at risk psychologically than others.

Wellness advocacy also doesn't make room for those who do not find their states of mental difference inherently distressing, but rather find navigating a world designed for only "mentally healthy" minds and bodies a barrier to access and care.

Wellness asks us to limit our understanding of distress to only our own body and mind, and to cure our mental differences because they are seen as inherently negative and unhealthy, rather than advocating for access and safety for non-normative bodies and minds.

Those of us seen as chronic cases, with upsetting or socially unacceptable symptoms, with less photogenic and inspirational stories, feel excluded from the supposedly inclusive messaging. Wellness campaigns also generally exclude those who are housing insecure due to stigmatization of their condition and their inability to work. They exclude those who are kept involuntarily in hospital wards or prisons, or those individuals medicated through legally enforceable community treatment orders.

Although attention to distress and harm that arises from mental states is undoubtedly important, and destigmatization is fundamental to changing the lives of those deemed "mentally ill" for the better, the framework of wellness, illness, and cure promoted by Bell Let's Talk remains limiting.

Structures of support that see success as harm reduction and increased access, rather than supposedly normal functioning, are vital. Peer-support networks are invaluable in advocating for changing the way mental disability, difference, and distress is made vulnerable through policing and medicalization.

After a year of increased attention to deaths as a result of police "wellness checks," especially for BIPOC individuals, we must push past the wellness model and think more deeply about mental disabilities -- and how we can change access and care.

Andrew McEwan is a PhD candidate at Brock University who writes on disability, madness, and literature. His recent work can be found in the anthology Literatures of Madness, and the poetry collection If Pressed. 

Image credit: Sydney Sims/Unsplash

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