By Louise Bradley
It’s not unusual for a football player to hit the field with an “undisclosed” injury. Maybe it’s a sprain, or a torn ligament, but whatever his discomfort, the attitude of stiffening your upper lip and playing through pain often prevails. Given this reality, the likelihood of sitting out a game due to a mental health issue is almost inconceivable.
Just ask Shea Emry. The CFL linebacker tried to keep his game face on during two episodes of serious depression. In fact, he kept his illness a secret for years, refusing to confide in even his closest friend – a friend who’d seen him through thick and thin – including two Grey Cup wins.
At six feet and 235 pounds, this giant of a man was afraid of being perceived as weak. “Even I believed I was weak,” he says.
But as a society, we must work to conquer this fear. One in five Canadian men will experience a mental health problem this year. In light of this statistic, chances are there are football players struggling with more than scoring touchdowns. Similarly, there are hockey players, firefighters, teachers, CEOs and men from every walk of life who are coping with mental health challenges.
Men are substantially less likely than women to seek help when symptoms of mental illness occur. And while the fear of stigma exists among both male and female sufferers, for men it may be compounded by the unfortunate misconception that to seek help is to show weakness. And without a significant paradigm shift, men will continue to suffer silently.
Of the roughly 3,750 Canadians who die by suicide every year, nearly 3,000 are men. Most were experiencing depression or some form of mental illness at the time of their death. Countless others are struggling to maintain a “strong” façade in the face of grief, broken relationships, lost jobs, or other trying circumstances that can lead to depression.
This month, thousands of men across the country are adorning their “stiff upper lips” with moustaches in support of Movember. The global movement began as a means to raise awareness about, and funds for, prostate cancer. In 2012, the mandate of Movember grew to encompass the pressing issue of men’s mental health. Given the inextricable link between physical health and mental wellbeing, Movember now offers all Canadians an opportunity to broach these important – and, for some, difficult topics – among family, friends and loved ones.
Proceeds from last year’s Movember have been invested in a wide range of projects benefiting men’s mental health in Canada. Some of these include improving access to mental health supports, First Nations boys’ and men’s mental health, and the specific challenges facing men of retirement age.
No person, man or woman, is immune to mental illness. And with awareness, prevention and early intervention, countless lives can be changed. Talking about one's feelings – and allowing oneself to be vulnerable – is not a weakness. In fact, it is a hallmark of true strength.
Eradicating the stigma surrounding mental illness, which is often born of fear and misunderstanding, is a big part of any conversation about mental health. We know that getting this message to men requires a unique approach, one tailored to men’s needs. For example, if we want to reach middle-aged men, we have to bring the conversation and tools directly to them – and for now at least, that is not just in the doctor’s office. The Mental Health Commission of Canada is working on many projects to address the mental illnesses that reflect Canadians and have a huge impact on their caregivers, including projects directed to men, wherever they may be.
Together, we have a collective responsibility for the mental health of our families, friends, neighbours, and colleagues. Getting involved with Movember is a great way to get the conversation started. Movember is the perfect time to remind the men in our lives that while growing a handlebar moustache may take guts, voicing their feelings takes a special brand of courage.
For Emry, a conversation initiated by his mother finally helped him open up about his depression and begin his road to recovery.
And how did his macho football buddies react?
“A lot of old teammates said thank you and shared stories of their own battles with depression or anxiety,” says Emry. “I realized that by telling my story I was empowering other people to do the same. We need to keep this conversation going.”
For more information about Movember visit Movember.com.
For more about the Mental Health Commission of Canada visit www.mentalhealthcommission.ca.
Louise Bradley is the President and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Her work has taken her across the country: from front-line nursing, to forensic and corrections care, to research, teaching, and large-scale hospital administration, Louise has seen mental health issues on the ground and at the highest administrative level. In her years of work, she has heard from hundreds of Canadians living with mental illness and mental health problems. Their stories are her inspiration to spark leading and lasting change for mental health care in Canada.
Shea Emry’s mission to transform the stigma about suffering and mental illness has indeed been ignited. Shea has since shared his story with tens of thousands of youth, and professionals. He has been named spokesperson for Movember's Men's Mental Health campaign called MOVE, and was just honoured at the 2013 Gibson's Finest CFL Awards Show in Regina as the recipient of the Jake Gaudeur Veteran's Trophy. The award recognizes those CFL veterans who have made outstanding contributions to their community.