Bell’s #letstalk: where are the politicians?

In my last post, I described a prominent social media-centered mental health destigmatization day that’s held annually in my home country, Canada. Organized by Bell, a Canadian Telecom company, the campaign is called #letstalk, and features prominent Canadian celebrities (they exist!) discussing their stuggles with, and stories about, mental health in their lives.

Their shared stories can really be beneficial, as people struggling with anxiety, depression or other issues are able to see prominent, successful, apparently “normal” people open up about suffering from the same problems that they do. On Bell’s #letstalk twitter feed and facebook page, athletes, broadcasters, TV personalities and musicians all feature prominently.

There’s a class of prominent people missing among these personalities, however. A search of the twitter feed for “member of parliament” (MP) — Canada’s directly elected federal representatives — turns up nothing. A search of #letstalk’s facebook page for the same term turns up just one post about a liberal MP, Celina Caesar-Chavannes from Whitby, Ontario who spoke with the Toronto Star about her struggles with depression. A review of MPs’ personal websites or news articles turns up statements about how mental health has affected those close to them, or about the need for legislation and funding for mental health initiatives, but personal anecdotes are another story.

Brief searches like these are unscientific, but they may reflect a reality described in the Star interview with Caesar-Chavannes and this piece in Politico magazine: politicians still can’t really talk about their mental health issues, if they have them. While celebrities’ careers do, in a way, depend on public opinion about their character, politicians directly depend on public confidence in their ability to do their jobs.

Can a person with depression effectively carry out the duties of an elected official? What about a person with anxiety? Perhaps, but if their constituency doesn’t think so, they can’t be open about it. Both the Politico article and the Star article cite the case of 1972 Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Thomas Eagleton, who had to withdraw from the race after it was revealed that he had once been hospitalized for depression.

For social destigmatization campaigns like #letstalk, the absence is somewhat of a disheartening deficit. If people with mental health issues see celebrities opening up but not politicians, might they get the impression that elected office is closed off to them? The personal touch that social media lends to communications may present a rare opportunity for some politicians — and unfortunately, in only some constituencies — to open up about their issues if they’ve experienced them, on a social platform on which they control the message. In this day and age, as the conversation about mental health has advanced, perhaps our politicians are finally ready to talk.

-JT

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