Despite what they may try to tell you, Bell is not a sincere ally in the struggle against mental illness. Bell’s role in the communications oligopoly made up of Bell, Rogers and Telus that dominates the Canadian cellphone market is representative of some of the worst aspects of capitalism. Corporate charity is not motivated by altruism, but veils and softens the edges of an economic system that is inherently exploitative and fundamentally dangerous to the mental and physical well-being of workers everywhere.
#BellLetsTalk’s success can be attributed to its reliance on the well-intentioned and on those who are always eager to publicly broadcast their commitment to ending whatever it is we’re trying to end this week. For 24 hours on Jan. 28, Bell offers a donation of 5 cents per text from Bell customers, per long distance or local call, and per tweet including #BellLetsTalk in a purported effort “to break the silence around mental illness and to support mental health all across Canada.” It’s been wildly successful at attracting participants, with 112 million “overall interactions” by 12 p.m.
Its success should not be a surprise. It not only latches on to an issue that has preoccupied university campuses and high schools of late, but then places the onus on Bell customers and Twitter users to do the emotional and physical labour of promoting Bell’s initiative and raising funds for mental health care and stigma reduction.
If a tweeter or a texter decides to not promote Bell’s advertising campaign, then they are heartless and become responsible for not taking advantage of Bell’s generosity. All of a sudden, the chronic underfunding of mental health care in Canada is not a disgraceful political problem that can only be resolved by a concerted and grassroots effort, but is a problem of not enough retweets.
Bell is not doing this because it is right. They’re doing it because they can profit from it. Not only is Bell legitimized by their display of altruism, but so does the economic system that makes Bell’s participation in a communications oligopoly possible. Driven not by altruism but by the pursuit of profits, Bell regularly lays off workers across the country, underdoubtedly to the detriment of their individual and family mental health.
Corporations strive to maximize profits no matter its effect on the health – mental or otherwise – of their workers. Workers, who labour for long hours at menial tasks, are constantly under threat of layoff in order to turn a profit for shareholders and their bosses. The companies then mount public relations campaigns using some of the surplus value extracted from their workers.
Despite Bell’s public gestures, their corporate conduct is harmful to the mental health of their employees. Bell has donated $67.5 million to mental health related charities since 2010. While admirable, it’s a tiny fraction of their yearly profits ($2.6 billion in 2012), and is a negligible amount compared to will be necessary to solve the problem.
Facing stigma is certainly a problem for those with mental health issues, but the larger issue remains access to mental health professionals who can treat their conditions. The solution to a lack of mental health care is not a corporate ad campaign, a few million dollars doled out in a way that has been meticulously calculated to create the biggest PR buzz, or “raised awareness,” but a governmental effort to properly allocate mental health resources where they are actually needed, such as small towns in rural New Brunswick underserved by mental health professionals.
Tweet if you want. The money won’t hurt, to be sure, but it is certainly the wrong way to go about helping. “Awareness” and “the removal of stigma” surrounding mental illness are admirable goals, but if that awareness is not turned into political mobilization then it is all but useless. But, more importantly than that, redeeming a corporation – and an economic system built on harm – is a step in the wrong direction if you’re concerned about mental health.
If we let the logic of the market structure all aspects of human interaction we won’t be able to provide adequate mental health care to those who need it, and we certainly won’t encourage any other kind of human flourishing.