On January 27, social media was awash with the hashtag #BellLetsTalk. The campaign needs little introduction and, while its merits are debatable, it agitates an issue worthy of deeper conversation: we need to start doing more than merely asking people living with mental illness to talk about their experiences.
While awareness-raising initiatives are valid, they may mislead us to believe that tweeting about a pervasive social issue is enough to dismantle it.
Talking to someone about your mental illness is incredibly therapeutic and often alleviates the pain of feeling like you’re suffering alone. What doesn’t get spoken about as much, though, is what comes after “talking to someone”—whether that’s confiding in a friend or a healthcare professional or “coming out” with a mental illness on Twitter. The aftermath can be hard: finding a therapist, changing therapists, getting time off work or cancelling plans with a friend because you’re too anxious to leave the house. These tough moments require support and understanding from those around you, and something more important than talking: listening—and listening when it might not be convenient to do so.
This is absolutely not to suggest that we should discourage spaces to talk about our mental illnesses. Rather, the real work of promoting mental wellness comes in taking on the responsibility to reach out to people we care about and challenge systems that create unhealthy environments. The University of Alberta, for example, funds a free a “Community Helpers” program to equip staff and students to better support their peers’ well-being. Even Bell’s television ads depicting more supportive ways to talk about mental illness in the workplace have the right idea.
We need to think about where we’ll be when the “talk” is over. The work that’s most important is difficult, but worth it, and something that can’t be accomplished in a day—or with a hashtag. V