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Bell Let's Talk initiates flag-raising to help end mental health stigma

The nation's three Northern capitals, as well as other Canadian cities, raised flags to promote mental health January 30, a day Bell Canada designated as the Bell Let's Talk Day.

Michele LeTourneau/NNSL photo
Iqalungmiut gathered on Jan. 30 for the Bell Let's Talk effort to end the stigma surrounding mental health, which saw a flag raised in all three Northern capitals, including Iqaluit.

"Bell Let's Talk Day is an event that brings Canadians together from coast to coast to coast to promote positive mental health," said Northwestel's manager of government relations and community engagement Gabrielle Morrill in Iqaluit, prior to the flag-raising ceremony in Nunavut's capital.

Northwestel is a subsidiary of Bell.

"We believe that together we can take great strides to improving access to care, supporting world-class research, being a leading example in our workplaces, and ending the stigma of mental illness," said Morrill, adding Bell changed the mental health funding landscape in Canada.

Morrill also said Northwestel is eager to work in Northern communities and within the company to promote and foster an environment where people can speak openly about mental health.

On social media people reported receiving countless messages to use the hashtag #BellLetsTalk on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat. Doing so would mean the company would donate five cents toward mental health. Send a text message on Bell's network, five cents. Watch its videos, five cents.  And on this day, a mobile or long distance call on Bell's network would also yield five cents.

All these five cents, according to the website, have accumulated to $93,423,628.80 donated since the beginning of the initiative, and the company hoped to raise enough to say this year it had reached $100 million.

But there's backlash. Many on social media spoke out in frustration, saying Bell's workers have stepped forward to talk about a lack of compassion toward their own mental health struggles, and that this speaks volumes about a profit-driven company's intentions.

Many suggested other ways to support those who struggle with mental health, such as directly supporting others by being present for them.

But raising the flag in Iqaluit sends a message, said Mayor Madeleine Redfern. The City of Iqaluit also raised a transgender flag two days prior.

"The raising of flags … shows support for a particular cause, like today's regarding the Let's Talk initiative. The goal is to raise awareness around mental health, attempts to reduce the stigma around it, and provide information to those who may be struggling with mental health issues so that they're aware of the resources that are available to them and to let people who are dealing with mental health struggles realize that they are not alone," said Redfern.

She noted one in five people are likely to suffer from mental health issues in their lifetime.

Such public events help provide support for friends, family and colleagues who may be dealing with such struggles. Similarly, the transgender flag-raising was to signal support to the community.

"We support you," said Redfern. "We acknowledge your desire to be recognized and to be respected."

Iqaluit is a diverse community, said the mayor, and it's important to recognize every member of the community has valuable contributions to make.

"We're not all one and the same. We may have different strengths and different challenges but, nonetheless, as a community coming together to acknowledge and celebrate diversity is beneficial," she said.


Michele LeTourneau/NNSL photo
Northwestel's manager of government relations and community engagement Gabrielle Morrill, centre left, unfurls the Bell Let's Talk flag in Iqaluit with spokesperson Kieran Drachenberg, Iqaluit Mayor Madeleine Redfern and Inuusirmi Katujjiqaatigiit Embrace Life Council's RCMP member Const. David Aglukark on January 30. The flag was also raised in Yellowknife, Whitehorse, and other Canadian cities.

Support more than symbolic

Kieran Drachenberg is a Bell Let's Talk spokesperson who, along with fellow spokesperson Melynda Ehaloak, raised the flag January 30.  Drachenberg is a transgender man who was instrumental, along with his mother Catherine Lightfoot, in ensuring Bill 31 – which protects gender identity in Nunavut’s Human Rights Act – passed in Nunavut's Legislative Assembly. He was also present at the transgender flag-raising.

Read about Kieran Drachenberg.

Read about Melynda Ehaloak.

"I feel like the importance of something symbolic like this really is emphasizing the fact that we are in full support. With the transgender flag, it shows we are in support of creating a safe environment for transgender people and for LGBTQ people," said Drachenberg.

"And in the case of mental health it really shows a dedication to ending the stigma. It really is showing dedication and passion and support. It's important to show that commitment."

As a spokesperson for Bell Let's Talk, Drachenberg says the goal is to create a positive arena for mental health discussion, and to increase awareness that more needs to be done.

"We want people to know there is hope," he said.

Financially, these messages have also been communicated via some Bell Let's Talk funding to Nunavut.

In 2018, the Kivalliq Inuit Association, headquartered in Rankin Inlet, received funds to expand its Motivation program, geared toward suicide prevention and bringing awareness to mental illness in the circumstances unique to Nunavut and the Kivalliq region.

In 2017, Bell Let's Talk and Northwestel donated $250,000 to Inuusirmi Katujjiqaatigiit Embrace Life Council to deliver a new mental health program to be delivered by Nunavut called safeTALK, a half-day program for young Nunavummiut over the age of 15 to become suicide-alert peer helpers with connections to intervention resources.

Const. David Aglukark is the RCMP representative on the Inuusirmi Katujjiqaatigiit Embrace Life Council board. He spoke prior to the flag-raising.

"For generations, Inuit have cared for each other by sharing food, tools, resources. In time of trouble or great challenges we have always supported one another. Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit is our core and teaches us to care for others, provide for each other, be respectful, and work together," he said.

"We are strong and resilient, but that does not mean we don't ask for help when coping with difficulties. Let's talk with each other about our feelings. Sometimes, just talking with someone can improve our mental health. Let's listen to one another, really listen. Take time to be someone's listener when they are struggling."

Aglukark said it's important to inform ourselves.

"The more we know, the stronger we are. Kindness doesn't cost anything. Be kind."

In 2014, $1 million was destined to be shared among the three Northern territories for community health resources, according to the company's website.

In 2012, some funding landed in Arviat.

"The Hamlet of Arviat with the funding support from Bell Let's Talk was able to train youth workers at the youth drop-in centre in peer support skills, healthy relationships, coping skills and bullying," stated Michelle Malla, director of community development with the hamlet in a testimonial on the Bell site.

In 2011, funding was provided to train front-line workers in Nunavut.