Canada's mental health sector has struggled to combat the stigma of mental illness for years, and while advocates say that support for the mentally ill is still well below what it should be, initiatives like today's Bell Let's Talk Day have helped.

One in five Canadians suffers from mental illness, with an annual cost of approximately $50 billion to the health care system, according to a 2011 report commissioned by the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), an organization funded by Health Canada that co-ordinates mental health initiatives and drafted Canada's mental health strategy.

But because of the stigma associated with mental illness, initiatives having to do with mental health are, for the most part, either ignored or underfunded.

Let's Talk Day started in 2010 as an effort to challenge that stigma by creating a forum for public discussion about it. Each January, Bell donates five cents for every call and text made on its network on Let's Talk Day, as well as for each Facebook share that promotes the cause and every tweet that uses the #BellLetsTalk hashtag.

'It has encouraged people to be more aware and in many cases to volunteer.' - Camille Quenneville, Canadian Mental Health Association

The company has donated more than $73 million to mental health initiatives across Canada so far under the program.

Mental health professionals say the campaign is more than PR stunt and has helped change the public debate about mental health.

"I think it's very significant," said Camille Quenneville, CEO of the Ontario branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). "It has encouraged people to be more aware and in many cases to volunteer to want to do something about this."

From silence to open debate

Dr. David Goldbloom, a psychiatrist and senior medical adviser at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, said the initiative has broadened the conversation around mental health. 

"It has drawn an unprecedented national spotlight on the subject of mental illness itself," said Goldbloom.

"We can look at other health causes like HIV or breast cancer, where the conversation went from silence to open talk. I think the same is happening now with mental health." 

Heather Stuart, Bell Mental health and stigma research chair

Heather Stuart holds the Bell Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research Chair at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. She said Be;ll's campaign has been successful because it made it OK to talk openly about something that everybody was afraid to talk about. (Heather Stuart)

Heather Stuart, who holds the Bell Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research Chair at Queen's University, said the success of the campaign speaks to a wider need to discuss mental illness openly.

"Everybody's afraid to say anything," she said. "There's this cloak of secrecy. I think it's been successful because it just broke through that bubble and said, 'We're gonna talk about this, and it's OK to do it.'"

Funding gap

Despite the success of Bell Let's Talk Day, the mental health sector still faces a number of tough challenges, particularly when it comes to funding.

'Because of stigma, mental health programs are often one of the first ones to be cut when there's a budget-tightening exercise going on.' - Heather Stuart, Queen's University

The 2012 Mental Health Care Strategy by the MHCC called on the government to improve funding of the mental health sector, which currently makes up about seven per cent of health care spending. The MHCC and the CMHA have both called for that to increase to nine per cent over 10 years, or about $4.29 billion.

However, no firm funding commitment has been made on a national level.

"Underfunding, I would say, is the biggest issue that we face," said Quenneville.

The stigma of mental illness hasn't helped when it comes to raising — and retaining — money for the cause.

"Because of stigma, mental health programs are often one of the first ones to be cut when there's a budget-tightening exercise going on," Stuart said. "They may also be the last to be funded, the first to be cut."

The other 364 days

Bell has committed to continuing Let's Talk Day for another five years and increasing funding to at least $100 million.

"There's been greater investment by us and others in mental health, but mental health is still not on par with other common health issues in terms of research, in education and awareness, in access to supports and services," said Mary Deacon, chair of Bell Let's Talk Day.

"We're making progress, but the work's not done, so that's why we are staying the course."

Bell Let's Talk Day happens once a year, and it's up to the public to ensure its impact extends beyond that, says Goldbloom.

"It's not sustainable to make every day Bell Let's Talk Day," he said. "Ultimately, this is up to every Canadian to take this on as a personal challenge and task."


  • An earlier version of this story said incorrectly that Dr. David Goldbloom as a psychologist. In fact, he is a psychiatrist.
    Jan 27, 2016 11:46 AM ET