I’ve wanted to write about the Bell Let’s Talk campaign for a couple of years. I’ve tweeted about it in the past, knowing I wanted to say more, but then the campaign ended, and life got in the way, as it does.
Then life got in the way again this year, in an ugly way. And as the 2016 version of the campaign began to appear, I knew I had to finally articulate what I was feeling about #BellLetsTalk, and why.
First, let’s celebrate the existence of a campaign about mental health, and how strong much of the campaign content is
I write this being aware that we urgently needed the campaign. Our society has done an outstanding job of keeping depression, anxiety and mental health out of public discourse, so instead of being understanding or compassionate, we’ve slapped people with destructive labels like “can’t handle it” or “sensitive.” People suffering from depression knew that they couldn’t possibly be open about how they felt.
So having a company like Bell stand up for mental health and encourage Canadians to participate in talking about the issue and the stigma was an enormous step forward. I can’t express my gratitude enough to the people at Bell for their initial vision and bravery.
And in many ways the campaign delivers what we needed. When you visit the site or see a lot of the content in social media, there are strong and real voices talking about depression and anxiety. Both Clara Hughes and Michael Landsberg are brave and articulate in talking about what depression is and isn’t, and the expanding roster of pubic figures who have been willing to lend their images and stories to the campaign is really encouraging – Serena Ryder, Mary Walsh, Kendra Fisher, Howie Mandel and many other people.
The videos are open and honest. (Some of them are a bit strangely art directed, but that’s beside the point.) It’s easy to share the content through social channels. There are tools and resources available on the site that have been developed in partnership with CAMH, and they’re full of good advice about how to talk about mental health.
All of this to say, once you click into it, once you’re engaged with the issues of mental health and depression, it’s a strong campaign.
So why is the awareness part of Bell Let’s Talk so terrible?
As I write this, I’m aware of billboards and out of home (OOH), some radio spots and a TV/cinema spot.
Let’s start with the cinema/TV spot. It’s about a worker and boss having an awkward conversation about the worker’s absence. The boss is alternately (and confusingly) sympathetic and judgemental, until finally the worker asks for “a break.” The boss finally appears to have some sort of transformational understanding of an unspoken condition.
The spot isn’t written or edited very clearly. The apparent outer/inner dialogue of the boss is confusing, with only a slight jump in the edit and a loss of background noise to let you know it’s her inner voice. The first time I saw the spot I didn’t understand what was going on at all. Only on the third viewing did I get it. (At least I think I get it.) And if it takes me that much effort to understand, after over 20 years in this business, I can’t see John and Jane Q. Public, the ostensible “real” people of Canada and the spot’s target audience, bothering to spend a lot of time winnowing out the spot’s message.
Because it does make me work really hard to understand that the boss’s attitudes have changed. Or that there are two kinds of attitude about mental health. Or that this is what the worker expects from the boss. Or something.
And I don’t understand what triggers the boss’s apparent transformation. Based on everything that’s come before in the script, the worker saying she needs a break is more likely to trigger a response from her boss of, “Yeah right, we all need a holiday, get back to work.”
I have heard a radio spot with a similar scenario to the cinema/TV, but I’ve only heard it once, so I can’t comment on it. (I did hear a different radio spot for the campaign today, with Clara Hughes talking openly about mental health and mercifully it was much more straightforward.)
So it’s puzzling, and it’s a missed opportunity to change awareness, but it’s merely bad execution. I can see that the people creating the campaign knew that negative attitudes about mental health are actually part of the problem we as a society have with our mental health. They were trying to support the campaign message that we need to be able to talk more openly about conditions like depression and anxiety – because they are medical conditions, not moral failings.
When simplifying the issue distorts the message
You’ve seen the billboards and other out-of-home executions. They’re everywhere. Simple but not stark, branded consistently with the microsite and the rest of the campaign – an image of one of the celebrity spokespeople on white, and a headline that’s about talking.
So what’s my problem?
The billboard headlines are about how we can all turn sad face emojis into happy face emojis (or go from thumbs down emojis to thumbs up emojis) on #BellLetsTalk day.
I find this stunning. Because it’s a betrayal of everything the campaign is trying to do.
It’s the opposite of the message that the campaign was created to spread. It’s the opposite of what we want Canadians to think when it comes to depression and anxiety.
People who are depressed will often have smiles on their faces. They’ll do whatever it takes to get through the day – smiling, laughing, joking, trying desperately not to betray their internal turmoil, their sense of inadequacy, their emotional distance from what’s going on around them.
You may look sad when you’re depressed. Or you may look happy. Whether the edges of your mouth are curled down or up has nothing to do with the emotional tidal waves that are drowning you inside.
Let’s talk about me for a second
I know this because I’ve lived it. To my coworkers and friends, I was fine and happy this summer – until suddenly I wasn’t.
For months I’d been grappling with what I thought was low-grade depression, thinking that I could handle it. I knew the signs, after all; I’d suffered before, and was aware of the range of pressures that was triggering how I felt. If I kept going, kept on exercising regularly and gobbling vitamin D, trying to deal with the pressures, I’d eventually be fine. So I kept smiling and kept going.
Until one day I couldn’t. I had an incident that demonstrated that my mental health was clearly not under my control.
I am more fortunate than most, in that my boss and my agency were supportive of me and enabled me to take a break from work. I’m also fortunate in being able to afford a therapist, and in the fact that my health plan covered my medication.
I know most people aren’t that fortunate. That’s why we so urgently need the #BellLetsTalk campaign, after all.
My own path took a renewed focus on exercise, vitamin D, meditation and yes medication – all different ways of healing and (in the way I visualized it) reconnecting my brain to my body, feeling whole.
Above all it took accepting my condition, instead of trying to deny it. As my therapist only half-jokingly put it, “Given all the stuff you’ve been facing, not being depressed would be crazy.”
I tell you all this because if there’s one thing I want you to take away from this post, is that depression is not about feeling sad.
I’m going to repeat that because people who haven’t suffered make this mistake all the time, and they need to stop. And this is what enrages me about the 2016 version of the #BellLetsTalk campaign.
Depression is not about feeling sad. It doesn’t mean you need cheering up. It’s not something that the people in your life should ever think is about you somehow not feeling happy enough. And it’s definitely not something that can be boiled down to a smiley face or a thumbs down emoji.
Depression is often about feeling nothing at all. It’s about feeling worthless and pointless. It’s about feeling like your bones are made of lead, so heavy that you literally can’t lift yourself out of bed. It’s about the fact that going to work takes all the energy you have, and so does coming home, each and every day. It’s about the constant drain of not showing any of this to anyone, because you can’t leave any hint to your spouse or boss or friend that you’re so fundamentally unsure of your existence. Because you’re sure that no one will understand if you do start to talk – you’ve heard “cheer up” or “pull yourself together” or “don’t be such a baby” before. And hearing that makes you feel even more isolated because you’re sure they’re right, but you can’t and you don’t know how, and suddenly it’s all even more difficult to bear.
So why would Bell and their agency get it so wrong?
I don’t want this to be about some agency weasel criticizing another agency’s work. I don’t particularly care which agency did this; I do find it interesting that no agency is easily identified with the past couple of years of the campaign. (An agency called lg2 out of Quebec created the original campaign several years ago, which I had no problem with.)
Based on my experience, I can only offer a few tentative thoughts about why the awareness work might have turned out the way it did:
“We need to get people to participate in #BellLetsTalk day to have conversations about mental health in social media, so we’ll use emojis because they’re so common in mobile and social.” Assuming that you have to dumb down the issue you’re fighting by misrepresenting it and reinforcing negative stereotypes seems a little self defeating, no?
“Who cares? It’s only a starting point – once people engage with the content they’ll see the deeper issues.” But everyone in this business knows that most people don’t engage with the deeper content of any campaign; only a relatively small percentage of people click links or watch the landing page videos. Those few precious initial seconds of audience attention must be used to change attitudes, not reinforce stereotypes.
“Talking too much about depression turns people off. We want people to engage and help, so we need to keep the message positive.” Much as the donations from the #BellLetsTalk campaign are helpful, they aren’t the solution. Changing people’s attitudes about depression and anxiety is the solution – as several of the celebrity videos point out.
Three possible scenarios, none of them valid reasons for misrepresenting what depression is. That’s what pisses me off.
The people running the campaign failed to understand that their message can’t misrepresent the disease
By filling their ads with smiley face emojis and thumbs down emojis that obviously stand for depression and whatever its opposite is supposed to be, #BellLetsTalk makes the fundamental mistake of trivializing depression by saying that it is about being sad – one of the societal attitudes that the rest of the campaign is trying to change. Confusing depression with feeling sad is one of the things that makes people not take depression or anxiety seriously in the first place.
As the standard bearer for mental health in Canada, #BellLetsTalk can’t repeat the misunderstandings we’re all trying to change. There’s no excuse.
That’s how the campaign needs to be better. Because people I know and love need it to be better. Hell, because I need it to be better.
And the public figures involved who have been so fearless and vocal about sharing their stories deserve better.
Because it could so easily have been better.
There are lots of stats about how much mental health issues cost us as a society. But the real cost is personal and human. Depression and anxiety make us less than we can be, by robbing us of our emotions and our relationships and our passions. They can steal the best parts of our lives.
But we don’t have to let that happen, not if we acknowledge the insidious truths about mental health.
I wish Bell knew that.
Bell continues to add spots to the #BellLetsTalk campaign – I'm impressed by the level of support they've given it, and by the number of ways they've tried to connect to people's experience of depression, helping people learn about the disease without worrying about labels. The new spots, Suffering in Silence and Missing Work, are empathetic and all too real.
And that's yet another reason why the billboards and out of home parts of the campaign are so disappointing. It's as if a different agency is executing them, one that doesn't understand the brief or the disease - just the look of the original campaign from years back.
Despite all the positive things that this campaign is doing, despite the buzz, despite the money that will be raised, we cannot accept portrayals of mental health that are damaging to how our society handles the condition. We can't accept a campaign that trivializes the pain and suffering it's supposed to help heal.
Enough of the smiley and sad emojis, @Bell_LetsTalk.