June 13th is Men's Mental Health Awareness Day, lying in the middle of Canadian Men's Health Week. This is a chance to discuss what many see as a silent crisis in men's mental health.
Both the federal and provincial government have official strategies to promote mental health. These strategies include suggestions and targets to improve the mental health of the whole population. They also include measures directed at high-risk specific sub-populations; including immigrants, youth and First Nations.
This approach is commendable. However one high-risk sub-population is largely ignored in both the federal and provincial mental health strategies: middle-aged men.
Some may find the proposition that middle-aged men are a vulnerable group laughable. A common perception is that these are the very people with careers, savings, cars, vacations and copious amounts of social capital. What could they possibly have to complain about?
The Grim Reality
Sadly, the statistics tell a different tale. Around 80 per cent of suicides in Canada are carried out by men, with men aged 40-60 having the highest rates. Likewise rates of substance use disorder are very high in this demographic, outnumbering women by a rate of three to one. Moreover, some research suggests that depression is elevated in this group. But this is under-reported due to diagnostic bias, where clinicians perceive depression as a "woman's illness," and act accordingly.
All this could be due to various factors.
Firstly, traditionally male industries such as manufacturing, forestry and fishing have declined precipitously. This has left many middle-aged men (especially in rural areas) unemployed or under-employed; leaving them without pride, meaning and purpose in life.
Secondly, research suggests that middle-aged men experience divorce and separation particularly hard. This can be a painful process, with men often losing their children, savings, friends, home and reputation. Indeed, a recent Canadian study shows poor mental health in this group.
Thirdly, there are few specific statutory services targeted to helping middle-aged men. For example a recent Statistics Canada report noted that there were 627 shelters for abused women and zero for abused men, even though men make up around 50 per cent of abuse victims.
Filling the Gaps
Fortunately, charitable organizations have stepped up, filling in some of the gaps in service provision. Movember is probably the best known, and has recently funded numerous initiatives to promote men's mental health in Canada.
One of these initiatives is entitled "Disrupting Divorce: Participatory Video in Action."
Participatory Video is a revolutionary new approach where marginalized people collaborate to script, produce and edit their own videos about issues and topics affecting their lives. The resulting videos are shown to target audiences (followed by discussion) in order to raise awareness, build networks, sensitize viewers and catalyze change on the ground.
Movember recently funded a team to conduct a Participatory Video project with low-income separated fathers living in the East End of Montreal. Many of these men have struggled with depression and suicidal ideation after their separation. This team met regularly to produce an enlightening video about their struggles and endurance. After months of hard work, a hard-hitting documentary was produced. This was recently screened to audiences across Canada, including Montreal, Toronto and Calgary, where it was very well-received.
Men participating in the project report that their involvement has been empowering and therapeutic. The project takes advantage of the male propensity to be practical, manual, inventive, creative and work as a team. It also taps into the male love of gadgets and technology. For many, this practical approach may be more preferable than popping a pill or talking about their problems to a psychologist for one hour.
The resultant video raises awareness of issues faced by this forgotten and vulnerable demographic. As such, it can be used as an educational tool to increase empathy, transform attitudes and encourage male viewers to take action and connect to local resources.
The team hopes that the video will be used by organizations such as mental health and social service providers, community groups and educational establishments. Though a modest project, such small steps may go some way to raising awareness of the mental health issues facing this forgotten but vulnerable demographic.
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