Despite recognizing positive aspects of the day, I do not enjoy Bell Let’s Talk. Critiques of the initiative abound online, citing problems with the sanitization of mental illness, the use of others’ lived experiences for corporate gain, a lack of diversity among faces and stories of the campaign, the representation of only “overcoming” narratives and the hierarchization and individualization of disability, among many others. Though I may not be able to add much to these, I can discuss how I feel witnessing Bell Let’s Talk day as a student living with anxiety and depression at Mount Allison.
I find it difficult to watch my newsfeed fill with cheery posts about the need to talk more, especially when these are written by people who have answered my own struggles with silence. I have spent years, cushioned by my privilege, talking about mental illness. And while I have been fortunate to find receptive audiences, I have also encountered many well-intentioned people who encourage or pressure me to censor my words and experiences, usually assuming I am unaware of the potential consequences of speaking about mental illness.
While I may not struggle with talking, I continue to struggle to be heard, be accepted for who I am and have my words considered on their own terms. I know that my employment prospects at Mt. A have been impacted by my openness about mental illness. Well-meaning professors have at various times explained they were doing “exposure therapy” with me, made decisions on my behalf to “protect me from my anxiety,” or told me to write about personal experiences of mental illness. I have learned that speaking in an environment like Mt. A, in which stigma, ableism and sanism remain pervasive, is accompanied by risks and that choosing to talk is not the same as being told to.
I am tired of committing myself to mental health work on a campus where people are unable to separate my value and potential from my mental illness. I am tired of questioning how different my last five years might have looked if I’d tried harder to hide this side of me, or if this side simply didn’t exist at all. I am tired of talking without seeing change.
So, to everyone who shared about Bell Let’s Talk last Wednesday, I’d like to present you with the following challenges:
Students: Work to get comfortable asking people about their well-being when you are genuinely concerned about them, sitting through messy disclosures and not knowing how to support your friends. This is not easy, but listening takes many forms. It might look like offering to walk a friend to the Wellness Centre, letting them sleep over, or being honest about your uncertainty and asking how you can help.
Professors: Go beyond the accommodation statements included in your syllabuses. Learn about Universal Design in Learning and experiment with implementing it. Attend workshops offered by the Meighen Centre. Attend Elephant in the Room. Advocate for students and employees with mental illnesses at Mt. A. Ask your students to comment on accessibility in their course evaluations. Challenge long-held ableist assumptions embedded in typical evaluation styles, classroom setups and ideas like “academic integrity.”
Administrators: Commit not only to mental wellness, but also to mental illness. Continue to apply for funding for more professional services. Invite public feedback on policies like the new Mental Health Strategy and Students of Concern Protocol. Learn more about community members’ experiences at Mt. A. Ask about experiences of racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia and sexual violence on campus and then work to combat these. Most of all, do not allow yourselves to write and think mental illness into abstraction. It is a reality many of us live every day.
We must all work harder at being vulnerable, learning, unlearning, asking, watching, listening and yes, talking. A corporation isn’t going to do our dirty work. But frontlines are not always those drawn in protests on the streets. They exist in boardrooms, classrooms and bedrooms, in prisons and on reserves, in darkened movie theatres and public bathrooms, across continents and on sidewalks. You do not have to be at every site at once. But please remember that mental illness is not confined to social media and neither should your allyship be.