lets-talk-mental-health.gifI’d been hearing about it for months. Over the radio on my way to work. On Twitter and Facebook. Even my phone bill for the month of February had a notice attached to the email reminding me of Bell’s “Let’s Talk” campaign encouraging people to start the conversation around mental health. For every text, Facebook share, tweet or long distance phone call made, Bell promised to donate five cents to mental health programs across Canada. What an amazing proposition, considering that mental health awareness has become a large focus over the past few years.

However, among all the shares of Bell’s campaign poster with the “Let’s Talk” message front and centre, and the hash tags clogging up the Twitterverse boasting the “#letstalk” message, the true message of the campaign was being lost. While the amount of people blogging and showing their support was tremendous, there was very little conversation around real-life experiences surrounding mental health. Few individuals reached out to share their experiences with mental illness, whether it is their own or their loved ones, due to the stigma still attached to mental health issues.

What is stigma? When someone appears to be different, we often view them in a negative manner or stereotype them, based on common perceptions in our society. We, in effect, brand them. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), the common stigma is that an individual suffering from mental illness is weak, dangerous or unable to cope. Rather than speaking out, the fear of being stigmatized has resulted in mental illness being labelled the “invisible” or “silent” illness.

The campaign was in full swing, but no one was addressing the real issues of mental health. And that’s when I was prompted to share my story. So, in addition to posting the “Let’s Talk” campaign on Facebook, I decided to post my story.

Now, for me, this was a fundamental turning point, as very few people knew about my struggles with anxiety and depression. Even fewer knew about my struggles with self-mutilation and only a handful knew about my two-year stint in therapy. But as someone who suffered in silence for most of my teenage and some of my young adult life, I knew I had to confront my inhibitions, no matter what kind of judgment I would face.

To my surprise, I received a completely different reaction. Within minutes of my post, my Facebook wall was flooded with messages from friends, family and acquaintances thanking me for sharing my story. In just a few hours, at least four of my friends had reposted the Bell “Let’s Talk” campaign, adding their personal experiences surrounding mental health or that of a loved one.

Did I inspire my own movement that day? Maybe, but really, it was Bell’s campaign that started the conversation. I was simply a facilitator and a proponent of the campaign’s original message—to talk, discuss and open people’s eyes to the impact that a stigma can have, even on a campaign whose primary goal is to remove that stigma. What I did learn from this experience, and something I hope others will take away from that day, is that stigma can only be removed by sharing our experiences, whether they be joyful, tragic or sad and embracing our true selves. No one is immune from sadness, fear, anxiety or loneliness, neither are we immune to happiness, joy or euphoria.

If we’re able to share the experiences that make us happy with such inhibition, we should also be able to share those that make us feel depressed, alone or upset with the same level of comfort.

And my hope is that one day we will be able to do so without fear of being branded.