VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — Tone-deaf, condescending, callous, dumb, shockingly bad. Those are some of the reactions to the B.C. government’s tweet offering people in the province self-care tips to help cope with the mental health fallout of the pandemic.
Friday’s tweet features a pastel pink bingo card with a centre square that says “Cried. Let it out.” The surrounding squares listing a range of activities like building a blanket fort, drinking tea, learning something new, dancing, or playing a board game.
“Self-care can help manage some stress & anxiety during #CovidBC. Identify how you’ve taken care of yourself so far this week with the goal to complete a row, column, or diagonal,” it says before linking to free or lower-cost mental health supports.
Self-care can help manage some stress & anxiety during #CovidBC. Identify how you've taken care of yourself so far this week with the goal to complete a row, column, or diagonal. If you need more mental health support, find many free & low-cost options at https://t.co/GzV1bYrQlK pic.twitter.com/e2RnbfkbKn
— BC Government News (@BCGovNews) February 19, 2021
The responses came flooding in almost immediately — mostly in the form of quote tweets — many with the same two-word, profane phrase.
A number of responses took issue with the emphasis on self-care instead of government action.
“British Columbians experiencing mental illness can’t find a family physician or psychiatrist to manage their care. Making a blanket fort is not the answer,” one user wrote.
“The BC Government could take many steps to ease the mental health of millions – rent freezes, bringing back CERB, free counseling/therapy, masks, etc… but instead they want to make your trauma & isolation a fun game,” wrote another.
The choice to include crying as the “free square” was harshly criticized.
“The fact that the free square is crying is truly the most cursed public health communication choice I can imagine. I mean normalize crying by all means, but this is wild,” wrote one user.
One even made an alternative bingo card.
— M.P. (@OmanReagan) February 19, 2021
‘I actually blinked a few times to see if I was reading it correctly’
Professor Scott Lear, who teaches at SFU’s Faculty of Health Sciences, was also taken aback by the apparent advice to cry.
“I actually blinked a few times to make sure I was reading it correctly. Crying can release certain emotions and can be helpful, but it comes across as very patronizing, ‘Just go sit somewhere and start crying and you’ll feel better.’ That’s probably not what’s going to work for a lot of people,” he says.
Although he says some of the suggestions might be useful, and that self-care is important he understands why the backlash was so fierce.
“People have been experiencing anxiety, stress, loss of social connections for months. You can’t just go play a board game, and then you’ll feel fine, if you’re hurting financially or you haven’t seen some of your family members for month, face to face, or hugged one of your friends that you really care for,” he says.
Lear also notes an incident last month when Dr. Bonnie Henry urged British Columbians to “do more” to stop the spread of COVID-19.
“Take a step back. Stay home and stay away from others,” she said on Jan 25.
The leader of the BC Greens is one of the many who questioned whether that advice was helpful.
I believe the vast majority of people are already doing literally everything they can. Gov can’t put this all on individuals, we need better leadership – restrict travel; masks, distancing & better ventilation in schools; more data & transparent, consistent communications #bcpoli https://t.co/TE2Q4e95qs
— Sonia Furstenau (@SoniaFurstenau) January 26, 2021
Lear says the self-care bingo card rankles for the same reason Henry’s comment did.
“Both of those things kind of put the onus and the responsibility on to the citizens themselves, and a lot of us are doing a lot. We have changed our lives,” he says.
“It seems patronizing.”
He also says that a tweet like this can be a “lightning rod” for people who are already frustrated or dissatisfied with the province’s response, adding a better tactic would be to communicate more clearly about what action is being taken.
“The government could be more forthcoming about what’s happening, providing more information, more transparency, more data — sharing more of what they’re doing.”
Access to affordable, adequate mental health care is something many in B.C. do not have, and Lear says he understand why those people would be particularly offended by the tweet.
“Our mental health coverage provincially is poor. We’re all suffering. But there’s people in essential work jobs that may not provide the type of sick leave or benefits that would cover mental health services. These people are probably suffering the most, yet they are the ones who may have the least access,” he says.
“The actual tweet may not be intended this way, but a lot of people can see this as a bit of a slap in the face, like ‘Oh we’re really suffering and you go tell us to read a book?'”
Communications failures can erode public trust: professor
And Lear says online outrage might not be the only consequence of a communications failure like this one.
“One of the concerns that I have with this beyond how people are receiving it in the immediate time is the long-term effect this will have — whether it will or won’t erode the public’s opinion of how the government is handling this pandemic,” he says.
“If people tune out because they’re getting what they see as tone-deaf messaging, they’re going to tune out the good messaging as well. That will be problematic, that makes it that much harder for the government to try and figure out ways to steer us in the right direction.”
The BC Government responded to the concerns raised by critics of the tweet Friday evening.
“COVID-19 has caused mental, emotional, and financial stress. Our post was meant to give people ideas of how they can take care of themselves and their neighbours and point them to free and low-cost mental health supports,” reads a tweet.
“We’ve seen positive feedback, but also heard we missed the mark. We know there’s a lot more work to do to get through this — we’re committed to doing the work.”