At a nickel a tweet, mental health talk is cheap

This is the annual “Let’s Talk” day in Canada in which people open up about their mental health struggles in an effort to make people recognize that they’re not alone.

But talk is cheap. Actual change is hard, the CBC reports today. Politicians say all the right things about mental health, but often stop short of doing much about it.

In Canada, one in five people suffers from mental illness but many of the mental health initiatives there are unfunded or underfunded.

“I think it’s very significant,” Camille Quenneville, CEO of the Ontario branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association tells the CBC. “It has encouraged people to be more aware and in many cases to volunteer to want to do something about this.”

“Everybody’s afraid to say anything,” Heather Stuart, who holds the Bell Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research Chair at Queen’s University, said. “There’s this cloak of secrecy. I think it’s been successful because it just broke through that bubble and said, ‘We’re gonna talk about this, and it’s OK to do it.'”

As mental health becomes “OK” to talk about, though, a question continues to emerge: “How long do we have to talk about it before there’s more action to do something about it?”

The campaign has been going since 2010. Bell donates money to mental health initiatives for every tweet using the #BellLetsTalk hashtag. That creates a bit of a problem because people use the hashtag to get the money, but have nothing of real value to say and the stories from those with mental illness get lost in the Twitter noise.

“Let’s stop positioning disabled people as charity cases through a-nickel-for-every-text campaigns,” writes Danielle Landry, who teaches Mad People’s History as part-time instructor with the School of Disability Studies.

She says online campaigns to end the stigma of mental illness only serve to reinforce that it’s unhealthy for people to talk about mental illness. It also puts a more glamorous face on mental illness by focusing on white, middle class people and famous Hollywood types.

Let’s question the false dichotomy that’s been created and is being perpetuated in the media between those ‘productive citizens’ with mental health problems and those ‘others’ diagnosed with serious mental illnesses, and how this is a tactic to divide our community and squash social movement.

Let’s talk about how we shouldn’t shame ourselves for not achieving all of the things the white upper-middle celebrities who’ve ‘come out’ to lead these campaigns have managed to achieve in their ‘overcoming’ narratives.

Let’s acknowledge that our experiences differ based on our various social locations, but let’s come together to recognize how we all have a role to play in dismantling all forms of oppression.

There’s plenty of pushback against the campaign in Canada. For one thing, it represents the “corporatization” of mental illness, Hani Shafi writes on the Torontoist today.

Still, the faces of the Let’s Talk campaign are predominantly wealthy white folks with successful recovery stories, Landry says—erasing the narratives of people of colour and those in poverty who may experience mental illness.

“We always get this particular kind of recovery narrative or overcoming narrative,” Landry says. “But how do everyday mad folks live up to those?”

And the celebrity names behind Bell’s campaign—think Howie Mandel and Clara Hughes—are similarly homogeneous. “[The spokespeople] are articulate and polished and clean and white,” Costa adds.

While these spokespeople certainly don’t reflect the diversity of those who experience psychiatric disabilities, their famous faces have propelled the campaign to huge audiences. They have also helped fund Bell’s grants for community advocacy, ranging from $5,000 to $25,000. Sadly, these grants are short lived—those who received grants in 2015 cannot reapply for a grant until 2017, which can stifle projects relying on their funding.

Maybe, some tweeters suggest today, it’s time to compel people to do more listening.

Maybe it’s time to talk about a mental health system that’s broken and the refusal of politicians to fix it, and the unwillingness of news organizations to cover it as a national health crisis, especially in a presidential election year.

In his Boston Globe column today, Kevin Cullen talks about this with Joe Kennedy, halfway through his second term in Congress.

Five years ago, when Joe Kennedy was a prosecutor on the Cape, a woman approached him at the courthouse and said, “I want you to hold my son without bail.”

Her son was a combat veteran who came home and developed a raging opiate addiction. He stole every piece of jewelry in the house. His father found him a treatment bed, but it wouldn’t open until the following Monday, so they filed charges and begged a judge to hold their son.

The kid looked up at the judge and said, “I’m an addict. I don’t know what I would do if you release me.”

During his first run for Congress, Joe Kennedy told that story at campaign stops.

“Everywhere I went, people came up to me and said, ‘That’s my son’s story. Except he didn’t make it,’’’ he said. “It’s gotten worse since then. We have a system that doesn’t work. The system is completely broken.”

Reimbursement for mental health therapists has shrunk to the point that few will take insurance. It’s all out of pocket. He knows a psychologist who was getting $8 an hour from Medicaid to treat poor people. That didn’t even cover the paperwork.

Today would be a good day to tell politicians that it’s OK to listen to what people have been telling them for years. Perhaps there should be a stigma for their indifference.