Study finds Bell Let’s Talk Day is ineffective at reducing suicides in Ontario

Sinyor said these figures indicate the suicide rate in the last decade has been “largely unchanged,” though they are lower than figures from the 1980s ad 1990s, signalling a plateau in recent years.

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A study on Bell Let’s Talk Day from researchers at Sunnybrook hospital and U of T sheds light on the ways people have engaged with the awareness campaign on Twitter, and whether that engagement and messaging is effective in reducing suicide rates locally. BELL LET'S TALK CAMPAIGN

By: Nadine Yousif, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

This year, the annual Bell Let’s Talk Day set a record. 

Social media engagement for the campaign’s 11th day on Jan. 27 hit the 159-million mark, raising more than $7 million in mental health funding. The achievement was celebrated by Bell in a press release.

“Once again we led the world in talking openly and honestly about mental health and all the ways we can make a difference for people living with mental illness,” said Bell CEO Mirko Bibic in the release.

But while engagement in 2021 reached an all-time high, a newly released study on Bell Let’s Talk Day from a team of researchers at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and the University of Toronto sheds light on the ways people have engaged with the awareness campaign on Twitter, and whether that engagement and messaging is effective in reducing suicide rates locally.

Dr. Mark Sinyor, a staff psychiatrist at Sunnybrook and lead author of the study released Feb. 10 in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, found that from 2011 to 2016 — the first years of the campaign — the annual day of action did not have an immediate impact on the suicide rate in Ontario. It’s a notable finding for Sinyor, who said previous research shows hopeful tweets about suicide and mental health are known to prevent deaths.

“We know that people learn from others, both offline and online, and in what they read in the media,” Sinyor said. “When you share with vulnerable people stories of survival, you often see survival more than you would otherwise.”

Sinyor’s research is part of a larger study funded by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which looked at the link between social media reporting and suicide rates. It’s the first study to examine suicide-related content on Twitter as a result of a large national mental health campaign.

He chose to look at Bell Let’s Talk Day, he said, because he noticed the day of action generates the most tweets related to suicide in a single day in Ontario. In the study, Sinyor also states the impact of mental health awareness campaigns in reducing stigma and improving literacy is well-documented, but there’s a dearth of data on whether awareness campaigns can have a hand in reducing deaths. 

As part of the study, Sinyor also did a content analysis of general tweets shared on Bell Let’s Talk Day about suicide in 2016. 

“We were interested to understand what the level of discourse was, what the sorts of things that people were talking about regarding suicide in the context of Bell Let’s Talk Day,” Sinyor explained. 

He found that a majority of tweets — 68 per cent — included general comments about suicide deaths, and 42.8 per cent of tweets highlighted suicide as a problem. A very small percentage of tweets — 0.6 per cent — contained stories of resilience, and only two per cent of tweets shared messages of hope.

Sinyor noted the majority of tweets examined were not from official Bell Let’s Talk channels, but are from everyday Canadians engaging with the awareness campaign on Twitter. He added it’s important to note that Bell Let’s Talk Day isn’t marketed as a suicide awareness campaign, but is rather a broader mental health awareness campaign. 

“The way that I view these results is that there may be an opportunity here that we could leverage that so far hasn’t been harnessed,” Sinyor concluded. “The research that I’ve conducted and that had been conducted by many of my colleagues worldwide shows very clearly that there are specific stories and information that one can present related to suicide in public that really can save lives.”

The impact of public messaging on suicide rates is a point echoed by Juveria Zaheer, a clinician scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). She is also part of a team that launched CAMH’s biggest campaign to date in September that is solely focused on suicide prevention. 

“We really wanted to focus on hope and recovery and resilience,” Zaheer said of CAMH’s Not Suicide, Not Today campaign. “When people see the campaign, they can say, ‘I see myself in that person,’ or ‘I see my family member in that person,’ and I think that’s so powerful.”

The campaign’s design, Zaheer added, is rooted in research that shows messages that discuss the ideas of suicide without focusing on following through with the act or death by suicide, and instead focusing on help and hope, can have a positive outcome in decreasing suicide rates.

For example, a study published in 2014 in the Journal of Affective Disorders by a team of Japanese researchers found that a suicide-awareness campaign launched between 2010 and 2012 in Nagoya, Japan, has led to a decrease in suicides in the subsequent months, especially for male residents.

In general, suicide rates in Ontario since 2010 have fluctuated around nine to 10 per 100,000, according to data from the Centre for Suicide Prevention. The suicide rate between 2011 and 2016 increased to 9.8 from nine. It peaked at 10 in 2017, before falling back to 9.1 in 2019. 

Sinyor said these figures indicate the suicide rate in the last decade has been “largely unchanged,” though they are lower than figures from the 1980s ad 1990s, signalling a plateau in recent years.

In response to Sinyor’s study, Bell Let’s Talk chair Mary Deacon said in an email that the campaign has focused on stories of resilience and hope in its first 10 years, and has amplified the voices of people with lived experience.

“We’ve adjusted the campaign over time, as attitudes changed and as we learned more in working with our partners, a process that’s always ongoing,” Deacon said.

Deacon said that in 2019, an initiative titled Friends of Bell Let’s Talk was released, through which a group of Canadians have been sharing stories of hope and resilience. The focus of the campaign in light of COVID-19 as of late, Deacon added, has been on trying to reduce barriers for access to mental health care. 

“There are many millions of conversations that occur on Bell Let’s Talk Day, but they all share a common purpose of taking action on mental health and by extension increasing Bell’s funding for mental health programs,” Deacon said.

Sinyor said that as a psychiatrist, he believes Bell Let’s Talk Day is a great movement that has inspired widespread conversations in Canada about mental health over the last decade. 

“I think it’s important to note that this isn’t a bad-news story,” Sinyor said of his study. Rather, it’s an opportunity to harness the potential of such a large awareness campaign. 

Zaheer echoed Sinyor’s position on the Bell campaign, and lauded its role in reducing stigma around mental health not only for patients, but for CAMH researchers. 

“I often think about how 15 or 20 years ago, there wouldn’t be anybody’s names on any of the buildings,” Zaheer said. “Mental health care and mental health research was dealing with the same kind of stigma.”

But Zaheer added she recognized the potential in building on the work Bell Let’s Talk has done in the last decade as more information emerges on effective messaging. To do that, she said the campaign could offer support and guidance for the general public on how to effectively share messages of hope and resilience. 

“If there was a way that we can spotlight these really important and amazing tweets that are positive, hopeful and resilient, that could be something to think about.”

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