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03/29/2019 16:53 EDT | Updated 03/29/2019 17:02 EDT

Canada Desperately Needs A New Approach To Men's Mental Health

A public inquiry can tell us how our mental-health system can better serve men and boys.

A recent special issue of the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry devoted three papers to men's mental health. The statistics summarized in these papers are shocking, leading some commentators, including the Canadian Mental Health Association, to conclude that there is a silent crisis of men's mental health.

For example, statistics indicate that over 50 Canadian men per week die by suicide, making up over 75 per cent of total suicides. Similarly, over 1 million Canadian men suffer addiction issues, and men make up over 80 per cent of fentanyl and opioid overdose deaths.

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Likewise, certain male sub-groups have particularly pronounced mental-health issues. Boys suffer high-rates of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which can contribute to school drop-out and failure to launch. Gay men have disproportionately high-rates of self-harm, male veterans of substance abuse, and Indigenous men of suicide.

Worryingly, men under-utilize official mental-health services, with evidence indicating that only 30 per cent of mental-health service users are male. In other words, far too many Canadian men and boys are suffering in silence, with devastating consequences for individuals, families and society as a whole.

Some men prefer action-oriented healing over talk-based healing or medication.

All this could be due to lack of choice in the Canadian mental-health system, which tends to prioritize medication and talk-based therapies. In contrast, my research indicates that some men prefer action-oriented healing over talk-based healing or medication. For example a young man in one of my recent studies told me that the medication he took for mental illness "drained" him, whereas hiking and fishing regularly "cleared his mind" and helped promote his mental health.

Such orientations could explain the growing popularity of "men's sheds" in Canada, where isolated and lonely men can get together to cook, repair bikes, conduct woodwork or take part in other action-based activities, all the while receiving solace and support from other participants. Early evaluations indicate that these men's sheds can reduce isolation and foster positive mental health and well-being.

What can be done to help Canadian men?

The statistics regarding men's mental health in Canada are mirrored in other jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom. Of note, the Women and Equalities Committee of the British House of Commons recently launched an inquiry into the mental health of men and boys in the U.K. This is a laudable and much-needed initiative garnering considerable cross-party and popular support.

This inquiry will ask a series of difficult questions to determine the most pressing issues affecting men and boys' mental health, which groups of men and boys are at highest risk, and how effective the government's current policy has been in improving their mental-health outcomes.

There are no plans for a similar inquiry here in Canada; however, this may be changing in the near future. That's why I am asking Canadian officials to take steps to launch a similar inquiry.

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Action-oriented healing may be beneficial to men's mental health.

Such an inquiry could find its inspiration from the 1967-1970 Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada, which engaged in wide consultation and public sessions to unearth numerous unaddressed issues. This led to a series of recommendations, including the formation of Status of Women Canada, which has implemented many programs to help women advance in society.

This inquiry could answer some pressing questions about men's mental health in Canada. Similar to the British inquiry, this could explore the social factors affecting the mental health of men and boys and what can be done to make the mental-health system more appealing.

A new approach

A new approach to men's mental health is necessary, as existing approaches are dominated by organizations such as the APA, which have been roundly criticized for adopting a somewhat confused and contradictory approach to men and masculinity.

We are in desperate need of innovative thinking to address the men's mental-health crisis and this can only result from having a diversity of voices at the table, which would be enabled by a public inquiry. This diversity of voices needs to be heard, as much research indicates that male experience tends to differ by factors such as age, ethnicity and profession. These nuances should be explored and people with first-hand experience of these issues must have centre stage.

All issues should be on the table in the debate about men's mental health.

Of course, psychologists and psychiatrists have a role to play, but so do other societal stakeholders. This includes First Nation leaders, veterans' associations, educators, mental-health advocacy organizations and police/first-responder representatives. Many of these organizations have been absent from serious discussions around men's mental health; their voices are necessary to add new ideas based on real-world experience rather than ivory-tower musings.

All issues should be on the table in the debate about men's mental health, and discussions must move beyond a narrow focus on masculinity to an examination of social factors that affect mental health. This must take an intersectional approach, investigating factors such as poverty, rural economics, occupational issues, family law and social isolation.

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Improving men's mental health is a matter of natural justice, and essential to a fair and just society. This is why I raised the issue of an inquiry.

I await the Canadian government's response with bated breath.

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