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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

It’s time to reframe masculinity — one step at a time

Beyoncé and Kendrick were crooning about America’s problems as our truck wound its way toward the trail. My husband, in the driver’s seat, was his usual jovial self as he chatted about music aligning with historical movements. It was 6:30 a.m. My husband is disgustingly and unabashedly a morning person, and we were on our way to an eight km hike along the Gatineau escarpment in Quebec.

Our son — who is in no way a morning person, or a hiker — was in the back seat. He was in charge of the music, and he was there to win a bet.

Despite my more taciturn demeanour, I was happy to be heading out that morning for the anticipated hike. It was the dynamic brewing between father and son that had me feeling cautious. Men can be weird and competitive, even when they’re trying to be chill.

Macho, Macho Man
The machismo started in the parking lot when my son stepped out of the truck wearing a sweater and holding his coffee.

“Leave your sweater and coffee here,” my husband said, which prompted my son to slip on his mutinous face and grip both his coffee cup and his sweater with determination. 

Before the world’s dumbest argument over knitwear and a travel mug could unfurl, I said to my husband, “You’re not carrying it or wearing it, so stop trying to control it.” To my son, I added, “It’s going to be hot, and there will be bugs — are you sure you want to bring those?”

I started the hike in the lead spot to avoid the inevitable male jockeying for the alpha position. This is one of the reasons I think men are weird. Why does it matter who goes first? It’s not a race. There are no prizes. Societal norms do men no favours when they inspire them to be dominant.

My son has no idea which direction we are taking, and yet he edges forward to take the lead. My husband, who regularly encourages me to go first when it’s just the two of us, suddenly wants to set the pace. The scene makes me think it’s no small wonder that men’s mental health is in the state it is. How can you seek help when you are convinced you should have all the answers?

Yes, I know, not all men are the same. But the statistics weigh heavily and are unignorable.

In Canada, 12 people die by suicide every day — with Statistics Canada reporting up to 4,500 annually — and men’s suicide rates are three times as high as women’s.

According to research by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, compared to men in the general population, Indigenous men exhibit higher rates of suicidal behaviour, including suicidal ideation, attempt(s), and death. Suicide attempts are 10 times as high among male Inuit youth, compared to non-Indigenous male youth, and compared to heterosexual men, sexual minority men (such as those who identify as gay, bisexual, or queer) are up to six times as likely to experience suicidal ideation.

Boys don’t cry
My husband is brilliant in many ways — including being low-key when big things are happening to him — but I’m starting to wonder if this stoicism by him and our male friends is a mask for bottling emotions, something men are socialized to do. Health issues? It’ll go away on its own. Business problems? No big deal. Family woes? Don’t go there.

When you give it any thought at all, the statistics should come as no surprise. Men living in environments where they are expected to uphold norms such as strength, toughness, and self-reliance can feed into negative beliefs about mental health. Men who adhere strongly to these norms may find it more difficult to recognize signs of mental illness in themselves and others and be less likely to access mental health support.

Reframing “masculinity” to allow greater expression and recognition of emotion and help seeking is a good first step.

A new generation is getting this lesson at Eskasoni First Nation on Cape Breton Island. GuysWork, a Nova Scotia program that started in 2012, bills itself as “a safe space to address masculine toxicity.” It does so by having male facilitators talk with groups of adolescent boys about different issues — things like health care, mental health resources, intimate partner violence, and keys to healthy relationships. Elsewhere, NextGenMen’s Cards of Masculinity box set presents 50 bold questions on topics like objectification and hook-up culture to facilitate meaningful discussions about boys’ beliefs and behaviours.

These organizations are working to change the narrative of outdated masculinity that leaves men feeling isolated, unable to express their emotions, and reluctant to seek help when they need it.

Such collective efforts help de-stigmatize mental illness among men, enhance the quality of health-care provider relationships, and open new pathways for building better personal relationships.

Programs that allow for “shoulder-to-shoulder” action-oriented tasks (think camping, sports, art, auto mechanics), rather than face-to-face talk-focused therapy may help get the conversation going.

Moving forward
Back on the trail, my husband points to the preferred path up a rocky incline. My son, of course, takes an alternate and more complex route. Nope, no obvious symbolism there.

We dragged him out of bed to hit the trail because we were getting worried — he needs to do more to get his physical and mental well-being in order. So, my husband bet him he couldn’t get up early enough to join us.

My husband used to run to keep in shape, but after a series of health issues took running off the table, I started to worry about him. I suspect he did so as well. Then we discovered that, while he could no longer run, he could hike — and the world shifted. Running in the neighbourhood was good, but hiking in the forest was transformational.

Even better, hiking is something my husband and I could do together. Some of our best and most rewarding conversations have happened on the trail. We’ve tackled work problems while admiring wild trilliums and resolved deeply personal issues while glimpsing white-tailed deer. Talking things through is good for us; it makes us reflect more.

As we approach the trail’s end two hours later, my son is in the lead. His sweater is around his waist, his coffee mug is full, and we’re all smiling.

Resource: Men’s Mental Health and Suicide in Canada — Key Takeaways

Further reading: Weaving Through the Challenges: The ABCs of Finding Paths to ACB Mental Health Care

Author: , CHE, is the director of marketing and communications at the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
Illustration: Holly Craib
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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