Over the past two weeks, blue toques have become as much a staple of the student-athlete’s attire as team jackets and socks with flip flops. No, they are not the latest release from Under Armour. Rather, the toques were provided by Bell as part of the Bell Let’s Talk Campaign, which began in 2010 with the hope of starting a conversation around mental illness.
Last year, Bell partnered with Atlantic University Sport to raise awareness for the campaign on campuses. This year, Bell extended its campaign to universities nationwide, passing out the distinctive blue toques to student athletes as part of its initiative to promote mental health awareness on campuses.
This past Sunday, the Mounties women’s hockey team hosted the UPEI Panthers for Mt. A’s Bell Let’s Talk Hockey game, one of over one hundred such games taking place across Canada this month.
Speaking on the difference between this year’s and last year’s campaign, fourth-year offensive lineman Matt Zwicker said, “[This year, Bell] really prepped early and released videos early to try and get the word out.” As a result, the Mounties played in front of one of their largest crowds of the season.
Zwicker referenced his own personal experiences supporting friends, family and teammates struggling with mental illness as reasons for being involved in the campaign on campus. He also noted the importance of athletes contributing to the community and being a part of campaigns like this.
“At the end of the day, student athletes are just students and we all want to support each other through tough times,” he said.
The game on Sunday began with an announcement of the campaign and its goal to end stigma surrounding mental illness. Both teams took to the ice with their blue toques and, after the national anthem, took a joint team photo.
The Mounties stormed out of the gates and after the second period it was a 1-1 tie, the Mounties holding a 29-11 lead in shots on net. Thanks to a late penalty, UPEI took the lead with six minutes left, before scoring their third goal two minutes later, to seal the 3-1 Mounties defeat.
Mt. A will look to rebound against SMU in Halifax on Friday, as they are four points behind Dalhousie for the final playoffs spot.
After the game, forward Kelly Matarazzo spoke about this year’s changes to the campaign. “I don’t remember it being this big of an event, especially taking a picture with the other team. It was kind of cool because it shows the teams can come together to support [ending the stigma],” she said.
Opening up the conversation on mental illness has become important to Matarazzo, since several of her team members have had to deal with mental illness in recent years.
Kelsey MacDougall, another fourth-year on the Mounties hockey team, thinks the prominence of the campaign on campus this year will transcend to the community of Sackville.
“The little kids who are on the ice right now, they are coming up seeing this big sign [about] Bell Let’s Talk and [are] probably asking questions and understanding at a younger age that it’s okay to express your feelings and talk to people and get it out,” she said.
Referring to tragedies that were the result of mental illness and stigma in her hometown of Saint George, N.B., MacDougall said the awareness that Bell Let’s Talk gives to mental illness can have a lasting impact.
“If we make people feel more comfortable and show them that they are supported no matter what [the issue] is, younger kids are going to be less affected by [mental illness] and know that it is okay to express their feelings,” she said.
Bell’s corporatization of the campaign to erase the stigma surrounding mental illness has received criticism since its inception. While some question Bell’s corporate motives, it has undoubtedly started a conversation among athletes. Along with that conversation, Bell Let’s Talk Day has raised $79 million for local and national organizations combatting mental illness in Canada since 2010.