Bell Let’s Talk… but what exactly about?

#BellLetsTalk Day has undoubtedly increased mental health awareness, but how awareness is only the first step.

“Lets stomp out the stigma!”, “5 in 5 people have mental health”, “Mental health is just as important as physical health”

If you have social media and live in Canada, your newsfeed is probably covered with these phrases right now. Today is Bell Lets Talk Day, where Bell donates 5 cents to mental health initiatives for every social media share of the #BellLetsTalk hashtag.

The purpose? To create open dialogue about mental health, and reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.

And does it work? You bet it does. If your like me, your newsfeed is entirely consumed with encouraging statuses, heart-felt stories and a judgment-free ambiance. The phrases I mentioned earlier become hashtags that even the bro-iest, jock from your high school is sharing.

And at this point you might realize that… mental health awareness has actually become cool.

And this is amazing… it truly is. It definitely helps eliminate stigma, which has long been the biggest challenge facing those with mental illness.

But here is my question: Did you actually learn anything about mental health on BellLetsTalk day?

I think for a lot of people — dare I say most– the answer is no. They learn little more than the fact that everyone they know wants to talk about mental health. The respect is there, but the understanding is not.

This revelation came all to clear to me a few years ago when I got a text from a friend, asking for advice.

Their text: Hey Evan, my friend is having some weird symptoms and he thinks it might be anxiety. You’ve dealt with this stuff lots… what should I say to him?

My reply: Okay, well first off, make him aware of all the mental health resources and counsellors available for him. Let him know that it is completely normal to use these resources.

Secondly, let him know that he’s not alone. Plenty of people have anxiety and he shouldn’t feel ashamed or alienated for experiencing it.

Them: Are you SERIOUS?!?

Me: Uh… yeah.

Them: First off, I am in absolutely NO position of authority to refer someone to a counsellor.

And second, there is no way that he wants to be told that his problem is so meaningless that there are a lot of other people dealing with it.

I think I’m just going to tell him that everything’s going to be fine… and that once exams are over, he’ll have nothing to worry about!

If you have dealt with anxiety… you know that the last thing you want to hear is a vacuous remark such as “you have nothing to worry about” (like, how the hell do they know if you have something to worry about?). And from both personal experience and from the vast amount of people I have talked to with anxiety, you DO want to be told that you’re not alone. You do want to be told that it’s normal to seek help.

And of course… there is no position of authority that one has to be in, to propose the idea of talking to a counsellor.

The worst part about this whole situation was that my friend was not a neophyte when it came to mental health awareness. She had volunteered for mental health initiatives and participated in multiple mental health training sessions. But, despite this, she was beyond clueless when it came to helping someone who was experiencing the most common mental illness in Canada . And yes… I know that she’s not an expert and I know it’s not her job to consult people suffering from a mental illness; but I think she could’ve done better than an “everything’s going to be fine!” remark.

The reality is, that no matter how much we reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness, there will always be a strong resistance from people to seek professional help for themselves. And if they do seek professional help, it won’t be the first help they sought. The first person they talk to will be a family member, a friend, a classmate or a coworker. The first help they seek… will be you — whether you’re educated, or not.

So do yourself — and your friend — a favour this Bell Lets Talk Day and learn a little bit about mental health and mental illness. Take five minutes to read a Wikipedia page on Schizophrenia. Watch a Youtube video on what it’s like to deal with depression. If one of your friends shared a story about their mental illness, ask them if its cool for you to learn more about it.

We have long talked about how okay we are with talking about it… now it’s time to actually talk about it. It’s time to learn about it, and seek to understand it.

Because when your friend actually does want to talk about their mental illness, you don’t want to be the clueless one saying “everything’s going to be fine”.