Combatting stress, unpacking stigmas, and supporting men's well-being
Deena Kara Shaffer
According to the World Health Organization, over 264 million people of all ages suffer from depression. In Canada, one in five experience a mental health or addiction problem, reports the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). In fact, mental illness is the number one disability in Canada. And mental health concerns, like anxiety and depression, can also impact our physical health and substance use. Due to stigma, many men are hesitant to seek professional help for mental health concerns, and it can have tragic long-term effects.
What comes to mind with the phrase “mental health”? When we feel mentally well and healthy, says Rick Ezekiel, Director of Equitable Learning, Health and Wellness at Centennial College, we experience “a full range of emotions, behaviours, and experiences, including positive emotions, supportive relationships, eagerness about our goals, motivation toward activities we enjoy, and hopefulness about the near and long-term future.”
But mental well-being isn’t simply feeling upbeat, says Ezekiel. “It also includes adaptive emotions like moderate stress in response to major life events, work, or school deadlines; sadness when grieving a loss; anger, upset, and uncertainty when navigating interpersonal conflict.”
For Ezekiel, it means “mental health challenges and mental illnesses, which can be associated with things like low mood, low motivation, and reduced engagement with people and activities we enjoy.”
Daryl Vineberg, registered psychotherapist, adds that mental health also means “the degree to which we’re connected to our truth, our ability to feel and express what we need, what we like and equally what we don’t like, our ability to give and receive love, and also to hold clear boundaries.”
For many, Ezekiel points out, “Positive experiences can be leveraged to cope with challenging situations. Research shows that with work, support, and engagement in care, there’s a strong possibility for recovery from many mental illnesses.
“And even for mental illnesses that might be stable over the life course, we can engage in care and build strategies that enable us to experience mental health while also having a mental illness diagnosis.”
Stigmas play a big part in why it can be so difficult to talk about mental health. “As a society, these conversations have not yet been fully normalized,” says Ezekiel. And, he adds, while “we have seen great strides in efforts to talk about failure, low mood, grief, and day-to-day stress, these efforts have excluded complex mental illnesses.
“We rarely see realistic and accurate portrayals of chronic suicidality, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, addiction, and other mental illnesses in media and mental health-focused campaigns.”
Alan Vu, a fertility-focused naturopathic doctor (ND) at Toronto’s Hannam Fertility and adjunct faculty at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine says stress is one of the top reasons that individuals stop fertility treatment prematurely.
There is an enduring belief, says Vineberg, that men “need to ‘hold it together.’ We have fears around ‘falling apart,’ because of what it might mean to both ourselves and to others. But this robs us of the experience of reaching out for support and connecting to others in our vulnerability.”
More broadly, as Ezekiel highlights, “The wellness industry has focused so much on enhancing mental health for those who have moderate or flourishing mental health in a way that further marginalizes individuals who have complex mental illnesses.
“We continue to see trends where individuals with mental illnesses disproportionately experience homelessness and incarceration, highlighting structural barriers and underinvestment in appropriate early interventions and treatment to support community members navigating these challenges.”
Josh Gitalis, clinical nutritionist and functional medicine practitioner, shares his advice on nutrition, herbs, and supplements, as well as lifestyle habits to support men’s mental health.
Due to stigma, many men are hesitant to seek professional help for mental health concerns, and it can have tragic long-term effects.
Is there anything unique to men's experiences of mental health and seeking help? We're learning, and unlearning, more and more about gender, including its fluidity, and the dangers of imposing gender assumptions.
That said, statistics indicate that while women outnumber men in terms of reported depression and anxiety, more men are reported to experience addiction. And, that 75 percent of those who commit suicide are men.
Gender differences continue to persist, explains Ezekiel, in ways like less willingness to self-identify as experiencing a mental health challenge, and seeking help less often. As Vineberg points out, this may be because "there can be expectations of men to be 'stable,' 'independent,' and 'reliable.'"
Ezekiel notes, "Men are socialized within a society that equates vulnerability, experiencing emotions, and reaching out for help as weakness, and distinctly not a male trait or way of being."
Boys and men, explain Exekiel, receive societal messages, definitions, and expectations of "manhood" and "maleness," like needing to be "strong." This toxic version of masculinity can in turn prevent the very "emotional intelligence, reaching out, and network-building critical to preventing or supporting mental illness."
Vineberg adds, "Toxic masculinity is a mask, an energetic posture that provides a false sense of safety through a denial of vulnerability. In this place, he can't really connect with another, or get his real needs met."
How can men sense when it might be time to reach out for help? Ezekiel hopes men might do so if they
"When our organism is out of balance," Vineberg says, "it communicates that to us. Unexpected bursts of anger are a common sign for men. But it could equally be bouts of crying or general and persistent discontent, agitation, boredom with one's life, cheating on a partner or spouse, use of substances, or overworking to dull difficult feelings."
This article was originally published in the June 2020 issue of alive Canada magazine, under the title "MENtal Health."