International Men’s Day: Let’s talk about men’s mental health


An interview with Dr. John Ogrodniczuk from HeadsUpGuys

Much like Movember, International Men’s Day (IMD) is a unique occasion to bring attention to men’s health. With the additional stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic, mental health has taken center stage, and so has men’s struggle with mental issues.

In a recent survey by Nanos Research commissioned by CTV news, many Canadians reported dealing with more mental health issues than before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, while federal and provincial governments have been deploying more resources toward mental health to support Canadians through this crisis, not everyone is taking advantage of what is available to them.

Many men struggle to speak up and reach out for help because of enduring myths, misconception and stigma according to HeadsUpGuys (HUG), a program founded by mental professionals at the University of British Columbia.  

HUG supports men's mental health in a positive, inclusive, and mutually supportive way with people of all backgrounds and demographics, regardless of gender, race, or sexual orientation.

We connected with Dr. John Ogrodniczuk of HUG to talk about their work on helping men reach out and overcome mental health issues. 

1.    Can you tell us a bit more about your organization and its mandate? 

There is a silent epidemic killing men in staggering numbers across many parts of the globe. It isn’t heart disease, cancer, or kidney disease—it’s suicide.  According to the World Health Organization, men account for three times the number of suicides as women.  The Public Health Agency of Canada has reported that suicide is the second leading cause of death among men aged 20-29 years and the third leading cause of death among men aged 30-44 years.

Until recently, conversations about men’s mental health and male suicide rates have been few and far between in the media. When a celebrity tragically dies by suicide, social media erupts with condolences and prayers, and yet in our daily lives, how much thought do we give to the ordinary men who decide they can no longer keep living because of the pain they harbour?

Suicide among men is a complex issue, but we know that depression is strongly associated with suicide, pointing to untreated or poorly treated depression (itself, one of the world’s leading causes of disability) as a contributing factor in their high suicide rates.

Additionally, men’s reluctance to access professional mental health care has been reported as contributing to high male suicide rates. Thus, reducing male suicide is reliant, in part, on optimizing men’s mental health help-seeking.

HeadsUpGuys was founded to address the alarmingly high suicide rate among men.  Recognizing the role of depression as a risk factor for suicide, HeadsUpGuys tackles depression in men as an upstream way of preventing suicide among men.

Our mission is to help men better understand their own mental health, understand that they’re not alone in their experience in feeling depressed or having thoughts of suicide, and know that reaching out for a hand when they need it is not a sign of weakness but of strength and determination.

Our commitment to excellence is based on decades of clinical and research experience in working with men, leading HeadsUpGuys to become a trusted resource for men across the globe, and in doing so, creating a community of men who are committed to being better partners, fathers, sons, and members of society.

2.    What services and resources does HUG provide for men who suffer from mental health

Empowering men in a way that honours their needs while promoting growth and change, HeadsUpGuys is a straightforward, action-oriented online tool that reframes depression as a common health issue among men, while offering practical suggestions for developing health-supporting habits.  By providing tips, tools, information about professional services, and stories of success, HeadsUpGuys offers a men-friendly medium through which to start the help-seeking process, thereby mitigating risk for suicidality among men.

We receive more than 60,000 visits each month. The top 5 Google search terms that bring people to our site all relate to suicidal intent, including “I want to kill myself”, “how to kill myself”, and “how to stop suicidal thoughts”. Our depression screening tool has been completed by more than 200,000 men, and has shown that 76% of men who complete it screen for probable depression, with 13% harbouring daily suicidal ideation. This is a clear testament to the need for encouraging greater public awareness of this resource.

We’re proud of the fact that HeadsUpGuys has become a much-respected tool for raising awareness, creating connection, and empowering change. Where suicide and depression thrive on isolation and feelings of hopelessness, HeadsUpGuys offers millions of men a safe and accessible space to engage their feelings, legitimize their health journey, and develop life-sustaining habits of self-care.

3.    What kind of advice or tips can you offer men who are dealing with stigma around mental health issues?

Males and females acquire gendered attitudes and behaviours from cultural values, norms, and ideologies that inform the enactment of gender-based behaviours.  Traditional masculine norms emphasise personal traits such as stoicism, competitiveness, and self-reliance for males.  Such traits can operate both positively and negatively; however they often serve as powerful barriers in the acknowledgement of mental health problems, and/or adaptive help seeking processes, largely through concerns about stigma and embarrassment (i.e., concern about violating masculine norms relating to self-reliance and stoicism, thus fearing appearing weak and vulnerable).

It's really important to keep in mind that many aspects of masculinity are not fundamentally bad, and indeed can be positive. Take self-reliance as one example.  No self-reliance is generally regarded as a significant personal limitation, and is associated with maladaptive dependency.  A moderate degree of self-reliance is actually fundamental to developing various competencies and a secure sense of self.  Yet, taken to the extreme, self-reliance can actually be a threat to a man's well-being, as it has been demonstrated that strong adherence to the attitude of self-reliance (in effect, shutting people out from your thoughts and feelings) is a robust predictor of suicidality.

Reaching out for help doesn’t mean losing control, being weak, or being a failure.  Lots of guys experience depression – it’s a fact of life when our coping strategies get overwhelmed. Restricting adaptive actions – like reaching out for help when we need it – is all about shielding ourselves from shame.  The sad irony in this is that the more we delay reaching out for help, the worse our problems become, and the more shame we feel.  Real strength is demonstrated by facing our fears and doing what we need to in order to get healthy and happy.  Virtually every guy that I’ve seen in my private practice says at some point during therapy, “I wish I had done this so much sooner.”

4.    The COVID-19 pandemic has brought mental health issues into the spotlight. Could you tell  us how HUG is responding to this crisis and what are the main challenges you are facing?

Beyond the impact on physical health, it is increasingly clear that the pandemic presents potentially severe and long-term mental health implications due to ongoing uncertainty related to the health, social, and economic consequences. Indeed, the lives of citizens everywhere have changed dramatically in all areas of life (e.g., daily routines, work situations, family income, family dynamics, leisure options, social life), leading to major concerns about global mental health. Evidence emerging from recent studies substantiates these concerns, noting high levels of depression, anxiety, fear, and stress.

In the early days of the pandemic, HeadsUpGuys created a new COVID-19 Hub that hosts helpful blogs and other important information to help people manage the challenges of the current pandemic.  More broadly, though, we have increased our efforts to raise awareness of depression and suicidality among men, and to point people to potentially helpful resources, such as ours.

We also recently ran a month-long campaign on loneliness, recognising that loneliness is one of the huge issues that has emanated from the pandemic and associated measures taken to slow the spread of the virus.  I regard loneliness – and how to address it – as one of the major challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

5.    The Public Health Agency of Canada just released a study on how the pandemic has caused an increase in substance abuse, such as opioids and alcohol. What, in your view, should be done to address this increase, especially amongst men? 

The pandemic has brought a multitude of stressors into the lives of all.  A range of coping capacities and strategies are used to deal with such stresses.  Substance use is a common, albeit maladaptive, coping strategy.  As the PHAC reports attests, substance use and abuse has risen during the pandemic as various health, social, and financial stressors overwhelm our capacity to cope adaptively.  Men are especially impacted by substance abuse.

Understanding how men in our society are brought up to behave is useful for understanding some of the forces that shape men’s substance use. Young boys, as they grow and develop, learn socio-culturally prescribed male roles about gender-appropriate behaviour. Studies have revealed a constellation of masculine ideals prohibiting emotional awareness and expression and visible signs of distress, including crying.  Through this, boys and men learn to dissociate themselves from their emotions (particularly vulnerable emotions like fear and sadness), and also from reaching out to others in times of distress so as to not violate societal norms for “appropriate” male behaviour.  To distance themselves from difficult emotions, some men will try to numb their pain, and sometimes literally try to forget about it, by turning to substance use.

This insight can help orient men toward more adaptive responses to stress and distress.  Ultimately, it means disclosing to others how they’re feeling and invoking their help in managing it.  No one ever feels better or gets better by using substances to numb their pain – no one.  Instead, we need to acknowledge our pain, confront our fears about exposing ourselves as not being “good enough” to tackle it on our own, and bring people into our lives to help us live more healthily and happily, which is what we all deserve.

We only fool ourselves by thinking we can overcome our problems through alcohol or drugs.  What’s worse is that it casts us into a downward spiral whereby our problems get worse, substance use increases, and shame intensifies.  The simple acts of sharing our feelings with others and being open to the support and care from others releases us from the burden of that shame.