Tuesday, January 26, 2016

BEYOND THE SMILEY FACE

I see myself as a ‘70s guy. Disco. Pet rocks. Doodle art. This was the decade defined by the Smiley Face. I’m decidedly old school and I still like my happy face as a button you wear instead of a colon plus a closed parenthesis on a keyboard. So that’s my full disclosure—I’m not an emoji kind of guy. If I had to take a position, I’m neither pro- nor anti-emoji. Call me emoji-indifferent.

But I have a stronger feeling about Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk Day which is January 27th or at least the way it is being promoted. According to its website, #BellLetsTalk seeks to generate conversation as “the best way to start breaking down the barriers associated with mental illness.” This campaign surely arises from good intentions. The corporation asserts: “Since 2010, Bell has committed $100 million to mental health initiatives in Canada.” Sadly, it seems that, more than ever, we’re in an era where nonprofits and public image-conscious businesses fill the gaps of essential services that have slashed or stagnant governmental budgets. I can be very cynical about Bell’s motives and about its financial commitment, but I’ll put that aside for now.

What offends me is a poster I see at two bus stops during my daily meanderings. The poster features Howie Mandel and uses two emojis to say, “On January 27 let’s turn [sad face] into [happy face].” The first time I saw the ad, I thought my tired morning eyes were mistaken. Where was the tacked-on “LOL”? How could a responsible, media-savvy corporate citizen publicize such a dangerous oversimplification? Bell has a clear intention of having its hashtag trend on Twitter. (“#BellLetsTalk was the #1 Twitter trend in Canada and worldwide on Bell Let’s Talk Day 2015.”) Is this about promoting itself—Look at us! Look at what good work we’re doing!—or is it about meaningful public awareness and education. When the chosen tool is 140-character Twitter, oversimplifications are bound to pop up. Still, I cannot get my head around the thinking that sad face/happy face symbols blatantly perpetuate misperceptions of mental health. I know the misperceptions firsthand. I have repeatedly experienced misunderstandings as I have struggled with depression during the past two years.

In April 2014, I spent nine days in a hospital after I demanded that I be “voluntarily” certified. I was a risk to myself and, despite the nightmare that the hospital stay became, it seemed my only option. I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder. Since then, I have received various forms of support from my family doctor, a psychologist, several psychiatrists and medication. I’ve been referred to books on mindfulness and I’ve Googled websites in search of anything that might help be kick depression.

Please, anything!

At some point in October 2015, the heavy fog finally lifted. I’ve been well for three and a half months. I don’t know what “cured” me or at least helped me walk away from this bout. It would be wonderful to say it was due to Dr. So-and-So, the meds or another resource. Maybe a combination of interventions. Alas, I don’t think so. I just know the stark difference between depression and feeling normal. I don’t feel particularly happy—that takes more work—but I feel an appreciation for being able to walk through a grocery store without the urge to “go fetal”, dropping to the floor and curling up in a ball. It’s a relief to no longer be deluged with suicidal thoughts and to no longer go through day after day of total nothingness.

Any professional who worked with me would acknowledge the severity of my depression. It was one nasty son of a bitch. I am relieved it’s gone but I know that my chances of being hospitalized and/or experiencing another prolonged episode of depression are greater than for other people. This is a cyclical, persistent beast. I’d like to say I know what I’d do differently, and better, next time, but I don’t. The whole time I suffered depression I ate well and exercised obsessively. Aside from the time in hospital and all the medical appointments, I didn’t miss a day of work due to illness. I was the Walking Dead, a fierce pair of permanent baggy eyes being the main sign of my feeble attempt to jump on the zombie trend.

While I don’t have any answers or insights about overcoming depression, I do know how blatantly simplistic and offensive it is to encapsulate mood disorders and mental illness into a tweet with transformative emojis. When I suffered the most, I had family members say things like “Why can’t you just be happy?” and “You should smile more.” I also had people with whom I shared my experiences fail to follow-up with a genuine “How are you doing?” Either the topic is too hard for them to talk about or the assumption is that depression is extremely short-term. Like a bad mood.

Sad face, happy face.

I do hope helpful resources and meaningful insights and connections arise from this year’s #BellLetsTalk. And I hope that, in the future, Bell will promote and lead this day with greater awareness and sensitivity, leaving the cutesy emojis to Tweeps who want to comment on the latest misstep of Justin Bieber or offensive remarks by a Republican seeking its party’s nomination for president.

If we’re going to talk, let’s do it right.