Chivers: Bell, Let’s Talk, but Let’s Also Tear Down the Systemic Barriers
January 31st, 2018 marked the eighth year of Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign, where five cents is donated per interaction facilitated by their network to a Canadian mental health organization. On Wednesday alone, there were 138 million social interactions, totaling a $6.92 million dollar donation. This campaign has been celebrated over the years for raising money - over $86.5 million thus far - and promoting a dialogue around mental health.
Now we’ve been talking for eight years. While it’s great that more people are having a conversation about mental health and working towards reducing the stigma, that also means that more people are becoming comfortable with asking for help from a healthcare system that has made embarrassingly short strides towards improving their mental health services over the past eight years. In fact, Canada spends only 7% of its healthcare budget on mental health, compared to 10-11% in countries such as the UK and Australia, and it shows.
When I was fifteen, in the middle of my anthropology class, I was convinced I was about to die. It felt as though I had been stabbed in the chest. I couldn’t inhale without being in agony. It’s been twelve years since, and I’ve never experienced pain like that. I even whispered to a classmate that I was having a heart attack. If I was about to drop dead, I wanted someone to be able to tell the paramedics what happened to me.
My classmate looked at me with concern. I quickly retracted my statement and smiled. I wanted a peaceful death. I was anxious enough without having a classroom full of people watch me die. So, I sunk down in my chair and waited for death.
Obviously, it didn’t come. The pain passed after a few minutes, but it frequently returned. Every few days, I’d experience a stabbing chest pain that would leave me doubled over, gasping for breath. Finally, I visited my doctor.
“It’s because you’re a vegetarian,” she said. “If your diet had a better range of nutrients, you wouldn’t be in pain.”
I showed her a book that my teacher had lent me, with large pictures of an anxiety monster who followed around an unsuspecting person, attacking her frequently. My doctor scoffed and sent me home.
I lived with painful anxiety attacks for ten years before seeking the advice of another doctor. While he was slightly more helpful, scribbling out a prescription for me, he didn’t offer me any referrals, follow-ups, or additional information on mental illness. It was a three-minute appointment but that is more than a lot of people get. When I had a severe crash in my mental health a few months later and needed a referral to see a therapist immediately, my doctor would not see me for six weeks because - and I quote verbatim - “mental illness is not considered an emergency”. I had to find a therapist who would see me without a doctor’s note, but with no note, it wasn’t covered under my benefits, and I had to pay $200 out of pocket to be seen for one hour.
I am a person with a lot of privilege. I’m a white, ciswoman from a middle-class family. I work for a private company that gives me medical benefits and paid sick days (which really shouldn’t be a privilege but a right, but such is the reality of the world in which we live). I have access to healthcare.
Yet, it has been a constant struggle for twelve years to receive any care for my mental illnesses.
Working in the social services for five years, I saw disenfranchised people face far more barriers than I ever did. I saw young people living on the streets, self-medicating for their mental illness. I watched as they would try to access mental health services, just to be turned away because of their addiction. I watched them try to access addiction services, just to be turned away because of their mental health. I watched as paramedics scoffed at a young man who lived with a severe case of schizophrenia, saying to each other that if he “just got off the dope”, he’d be fine. I watched people go to the hospital with suicidal ideation and be discharged within hours, with no supports put into place.
Talking about it isn’t enough. It’s time we tear down the barriers that prevent people from accessing mental healthcare. It’s a convoluted system that feasts on our symptoms. We may struggle to get out of bed and go to work, but we’re still expected to have the energy to jump through the fiery hoops that the healthcare system has set up for us.
We need to stop thinking that tweeting once a year is going to make our lives easier. We don’t need your tweets. We need systemic change. We need shorter wait times. We need comprehensive treatment options. We need affordable housing. We need more mental health services that are covered by universal healthcare. We need medical personnel to be knowledgeable about mental illnesses and the options for resources and referrals. We need early intervention. We need more treatment options for concurrent disorders. We need paid sick days and mental health days. We need mental health education in schools. We need our mental health to be taken (at least) as seriously as our physical health.
It’s time that we stop looking at a phone and internet company to fix the mental health system and start expecting our government to do better by us.