01/28/2015 01:01 EST | Updated 03/30/2015 05:59 EDT

Why Bell Let's Talk Day Is a Cynical Publicity Stunt

This morning, Prime Minister Stephen Harper tweeted about mental health: "Today is #BellLetsTalk day - let's end the stigma around #mentalhealth. RT, share & spread the word: @Bell_LetsTalk.

For the past few years, Bell's Let's Talk campaign has encouraged people to talk about their struggles with mental health. On one hand, Harper's support for such a campaign is encouraging. Surely, Canada's Prime Minister wants us to talk about mental health and end stigma, that's good news.

But there are deep problems with the campaign in general, and coming from Harper, it's a cynical publicity stunt.

Since 2006, Stephen Harper has lead attack after attack on community organizations making it harder for women and other minority groups to advocate on behalf of their members, especially for issues that can make peoples' mental health worse.

Harper's government has introduced measures that criminalize people with mental health struggles. Mandatory minimum sentences mean that judges have no choice but to incarcerate a person who also struggles with mental illness and who may otherwise benefit from a different treatment.

Harper wants to push this even further, by allowing some men and women to be locked up in jail until they die. In a time where overall crime rates are decreasing, this will cause an explosion to Canada's incarceration rates.

Harper's government refused to implement any of the recommendations made by the inquiry that examined Ashley Smith's death. The young woman spent most of her teenaged life in jail before she hung herself while prison guards watched. The death was ruled a homicide and many experts argued that solidarity confinement created torturous situations for inmates, especially those struggling with mental health.

Harper's government has closed offices that help Canadian veterans, despite the widespread opposition from veterans themselves. Veterans suffering from PTSD argue that they are being denied the compensation they deserve.

Harper's government has quietly allowed Canada to go to war, with boots on the ground in Iraq. If the treatment of Afghanistan veterans is any indication, many of those soldiers will likely return to find that the supports that exist for them are inadequate.

Harper has rejected the widespread call for a national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women, arguing that as a criminal issue, a national inquiry won't help. Of course, systemic issues that perpetuate this violence cannot be addressed if the phenomenon is seen as simply a criminal issue, rather than a systemic societal one.

Harper's government has consistently refused to create a national system of childcare. This forces women and families into impossible situations that can exacerbate and further decline already difficult mental health struggles.

Household debt, credit card debt, student debt and mortgages have put incredible financial stress on thousands of Canadians. These debts have been encouraged by various economic policies promoted by Harper's government. For many people, financial pressures can be the cause or the trigger of poor mental health. This, of course, includes monthly bills for cell phones and Internet, sometimes sent by Bell.

Bell's Let's Talk campaign glosses over these realities and allows for someone like Stephen Harper to non-ironically declare his support for the campaign. The work done by Clara Hughes is of critical importance, but it individualizes mental health struggles and continues to stigmatize it as a personal problem.

But our collective mental health, and the ranges that exist within our communities is not an individual problem. Together, when we discuss our own mental health struggles, we realize that we're all struggling together. And, despite the attempts by right-wing government forces like the Harper Conservatives, we can find strength in talking together about our common challenges.

We need progressive organizations to build off the publicity of Let's Talk and call for a new day: Let's Act. When it feels like the snow will never melt and spring will never come, let's commit ourselves to act.

Let's Act and demand more funding to mental health supports, including the improved public funding of mental health doctors, treatments and facilities.

Let's Act and reject Stephen Harper's attempt to criminalize people with mental health struggles: help and rehabilitation rather than solitary confinement and life-long prison sentences.

Let's Act and share our struggles, share our solutions and give each other the strength we need to improve our personal situations.

In 2008, I struggled with an intense year of work-place depression. I would cry randomly every night. I felt as if the world was turning and it left me behind. I developed phobias that remain with me until today.

But had I not talked about it, I may not have overcome it. So, yes: today, we can talk. Let's talk today and Let's Act tomorrow.

Because the only shame when it comes to mental health is how the system fails our communities.


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