UBC Prof. John Ogrodniczuk (left) and Prof. John Oliffe have received $2.9 million in funding to support men’s mental health, such as suicide prevention and anti-depression programs.
Photograph by: Kim Stallknecht , PNG
Two months before comedian Robin Williams ended his life, a photo exhibit called Man-Up Against Suicide was drawing in audiences at the Foster Eastman art gallery in downtown Vancouver.
The riveting exhibition featured the photographs of 25 men and women who have been shaken by male suicide. The display was funded by the Movember Foundation, the international men’s health initiative best known for its November moustaches campaign.
But the Man-Up Against Suicide exhibit, which will soon go on tour, is just a small part of Movember’s unprecedented $12-million Canadian campaign to strengthen men’s mental health, particularly in regard to male suicide and depression.
Last year, for the first time in Canada, the Movember Foundation — founded 11 years ago in Australia and now in 21 countries — began to add men’s mental health to its focus on prostate and testicular cancer.
As a result, new Movember Foundation grants immediately surpassed the total amount of money all levels of governments across Canada have devoted to targeted mental health programs for men.
Two University of B.C. professors — John Oliffe from nursing and John Ogrodniczuk from psychiatry — are co-leaders of a project funded by a Movember grant of $2.9 million (including the photo exhibit).
The professors cite chilling statistics: The suicide rate for men and boys is four times higher than it is for girls and women. Yet few Canadians talk specifically about men’s mental health.
Among other things, Ogrodniczuk and Oliffe are trying to overcome men’s reluctance to deal with mental health difficulties.
Recognizing that about 70 per cent of Canadians who seek mental health treatment are women, the two specialists are trying to break down barriers that keep many men from seeking support.
Some ideals of masculinity, based on “emotional stoicism” and not expressing sadness, can get in the way. But they say professionals can still connect with men’s yearning for healthy lives by appealing to other masculine values, such as working hard, taking action and showing courage.
To such ends, the professors are overseeing five projects devoted to raising awareness and directly supporting men in B.C. and beyond, including seniors, soldiers, post-secondary students and aboriginals.
“The $12 million that Movember Canada is spending on men’s mental health is unprecedented,” said Oliffe, explaining that it dwarfs what Canada’s government-funded health research bodies have spent in the field in the past 15 years.
“I’ve never seen this kind of support before. And it’s going to make a difference.”
The Aug. 11 suicide of Williams led more people to engage in “powerful” talk about male depression, said Oliffe. People are recognizing that even globally celebrated men can live in severe isolation, and don’t reach out for help.
One of the UBC team’s plans is to design a state-of-the-art website for men falling into suicidal thoughts and depression (which is often not recognized in men).
Researchers have discovered depression is as prevalent among men as women. However, its symptoms are different in men, and include irritability, risky behaviour and escape mechanisms such as workaholism and alcohol abuse. The website will attempt to overcome stereotypes about men and mental health.
For instance, one study Ogrodniczuk took part in found men referred to Richmond Hospital’s mental health program were just as ready as women to enter into psychotherapy.
Another one of UBC’s Movember projects centres on men with recent diagnoses of prostate cancer, because they are at higher risk for depression. An other is for young men struggling with the tough transition to college or university, where they often experience loneliness and overwhelming pressure to succeed.
These male transition programs are led by Marv Westwood of UBC’s counselling psychology department, who bases his approach on groups he has operated for soldiers re-entering civilian life.
Another Movember pilot project in B.C. is called The Dude’s Club, led by Dr. Paul Gross. It aims to give emotional support to First Nations men in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Men’s Sheds in Kelowna and Winnipeg, give older men a chance to “come together in the way guys do,” says Ogrodniczuk, whose rural Alberta upbringing and amateur hockey career has given him first-hand experience with “tough” males.
Meanwhile, the Man-Up Against Suicide exhibition is to go on display on Sept. 10 (World Suicide Prevention Day) at Valley View Funeral Home in Surrey, as well as next month in the small Alberta town of Rimbey (in part because men’s suicide rates are higher in rural areas).
Across Canada, in addition to funding prostate and testicular cancer programs, Movember is sponsoring other creative efforts to bolster men’s mental health.
They include a $3-million grant to overcome Canadian Asian males’ stigma against mental illness; a $480,000 project to support “healthy dads,” and a $1.7-million plan to reduce the misuse of drugs and alcohol among male post-secondary students.
One of the professional skills necessary to assist males in dealing with often-ignored mental health issues, say Ogrodniczuk and Oliffe, requires approaching them with the right pitch — because many men, unlike women, are often put off by language that typically surrounds therapy, seeking help and sharing feelings.
Ogrodniczuk talks about the importance of mental-health professionals using alternative language with men — including offering to consult with them, as opposed to provide therapy, and to not be shy about swearing in support sessions, since many men find it natural.
As for suicidal thoughts, Oliffe witnessed many men trying to deny their pain when he worked in Australian emergency departments. He emphasizes building hope on the masculine values of not letting others down — and continuing to be a strong provider for family.
The Movember grant to the UBC team expires at the end of 2016, but the professors are working to find ways to extend their men’s mental health projects beyond that date. A lot of people, men and women, are counting on them.
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