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Canadian Olympic athlete Clara Hughes was part of Bell Canada’s “Let’s Talk” campaign. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Canadian Olympic athlete Clara Hughes was part of Bell Canada’s “Let’s Talk” campaign. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Bell deserves praise, not cynicism, for its support of mental health Add to ...

Mental illness is one of the most important health challenges that we face today. One in four Canadians is affected in some way; the impact on individuals and their families is pervasive.

Because mental illness is a chronic condition, the impact on our economy is equally pervasive. The annual cost to our economy is a staggering $51-billion. Fortunately, the dialogue within our community has become far more open and supportive in recent years.

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The media are actively supporting this open dialogue to the benefit of any of us who are touched by mental illness. For this reason, I was shocked at the tone of the article in The Globe and Mail describing the Bell “Let’s Talk” campaign of BCE Inc. The article distorts Bell’s motivation in its powerful support of mental health.

Let’s understand what Bell has done in recent years. In 2010, they committed $50-million over five years (now $62-million) to support mental health care, research and awareness across Canada. They made a groundbreaking donation of $10-million to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, which put that campaign comfortably over the top of its objective of $100-million.

Bell also associated itself very publicly in support of mental health by putting its name prominently on the Bell Gateway building at CAMH, the first major corporation in North America to do so on a mental health facility. But most importantly, Bell has trained all of its managers on how to recognize instances of mental illness and addiction in their workplace and how to deal with those who are suffering. They are walking the talk.

I have been involved with an organization, the Business and Economic Roundtable for Addiction and Mental Illness, for the past 12 years. One of our primary objectives is to reach top management in Canadian corporations and encourage them to do precisely what Bell has done. Bell clearly has been a leader.

The tone of The Globe’s article implies that the primary reason that Bell has taken the initiative in its “Let’s Talk” campaign is to undertake a “cost effective marketing campaign,” and to position Bell to help “people see it in a different, more positive light.” I view this totally differently. By lending their brand, Bell has done much to normalize and promote awareness of mental illness.

I know Clara Hughes, Mary Deacon and George Cope. I know of their personal support for mental health causes. I know of the passion which they have displayed in support of this cause. The interpretation in the article, in my judgment, does not reflect their objectives in launching Bell’s “Let’s Talk” campaign.

Let’s be clear. Those of us who have been actively involved in the mental health field view Bell Canada as the poster child for what good corporations in Canada can do. We are making good progress. A number of corporations have become more active supporters of mental health in recent years, a major step forward from the environment that we faced 10 or 15 years ago. But no other corporation has matched Bell in its generosity, or in the very public way in which it has addressed the very important stigma issue.

We should encourage corporations to do more than simply write a cheque for their chosen mental health organization. In order to fight the stigma involved, we must look to leaders like Bell to take public positions to generate a broad public dialogue. In time, that will bring mental illness out of the dark corners and fully into the public space.

We can all recall how people were once reluctant to discuss illnesses such as cancer and AIDS. As people and companies in prominent positions became more publicly supportive of these causes, this reluctance disappeared – to the great benefit of those affected.

That is precisely the benefit of Bell’s “Let’s Talk” campaign. There were 96 million calls, texts, Facebook shares and tweets in support of opening the dialogue around mental illness and addiction. More than 1.5 million of those were tweets, underlining that we are engaging Canada’s youth in this important initiative. And let’s not forget that Bell is donating $4.8-million more based on Tuesday’s participation to support these causes.

Far from being criticized, Bell should be strongly congratulated on its important role in raising awareness of mental illness, engaging the public in a productive conversation and raising a significant amount of money in a very painless way.

Michael Wilson is the chairman of Barclays Capital Canada Inc., Canada’s former ambassador to the United States and a former federal finance minister.

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