According to the World Health Organization, over 264 million people of all ages suffer from depression. In Canada, one in five experience a mental health or addiction problem, reports the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). In fact, mental illness is the number one disability in Canada.
And mental health concerns, like anxiety and depression, can also impact our physical health and substance use. Due to stigma, many men are hesitant to seek professional help for mental health concerns, and it can have tragic long-term effects.
Feeling mentally well
What comes to mind with the phrase “mental health”? When we feel mentally well and healthy, says Rick Ezekiel, Director of Equitable Learning, Health and Wellness at Centennial College, we experience “a full range of emotions, behaviours, and experiences, including positive emotions, supportive relationships, eagerness about our goals, motivation toward activities we enjoy, and hopefulness about the near and long-term future.”
But mental well-being isn’t simply feeling upbeat, says Ezekiel. “It also includes adaptive emotions like moderate stress in response to major life events, work, or school deadlines; sadness when grieving a loss; anger, upset, and uncertainty when navigating interpersonal conflict.”
What does “mental health” mean?
For Ezekiel, it means “mental health challenges and mental illnesses, which can be associated with things like low mood, low motivation, and reduced engagement with people and activities we enjoy.”
Daryl Vineberg, registered psychotherapist, adds that mental health also means “the degree to which we’re connected to our truth, our ability to feel and express what we need, what we like and equally what we don’t like, our ability to give and receive love, and also to hold clear boundaries.”
Recovering our mental health
For many, Ezekiel points out, “Positive experiences can be leveraged to cope with challenging situations. Research shows that with work, support, and engagement in care, there’s a strong possibility for recovery from many mental illnesses.
“And even for mental illnesses that might be stable over the life course, we can engage in care and build strategies that enable us to experience mental health while also having a mental illness diagnosis.”
Stigmas play a big part in why it can be so difficult to talk about mental health. “As a society, these conversations have not yet been fully normalized,” says Ezekiel. And, he adds, while “we have seen great strides in efforts to talk about failure, low mood, grief, and day-to-day stress, these efforts have excluded complex mental illnesses.
“We rarely see realistic and accurate portrayals of chronic suicidality, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, addiction, and other mental illnesses in media and mental health-focused campaigns.”
MENtal health and fertility
Alan Vu, a fertility-focused naturopathic doctor (ND) at Toronto’s Hannam Fertility and adjunct faculty at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine says stress is one of the top reasons that individuals stop fertility treatment prematurely.
- Exercise helps us stay in the present moment and keep stressful thoughts at bay for a while.
- Getting adequate and good sleep makes a big difference in how we handle stress.
- Stress takes a toll—notice how it might be showing up in your life, perhaps in the forms of impatience or frustration.
- The stress you feel as a male partner is unique in many ways, and it’s important to communicate your perspective and emotions—keeping feelings to yourself can actually create distance in a couple and make your partner feel disconnected.
- Counselling comes in different forms—one on one, couples, and group—and they can all have different benefits.
There is an enduring belief, says Vineberg, that men “need to ‘hold it together.’ We have fears around ‘falling apart,’ because of what it might mean to both ourselves and to others. But this robs us of the experience of reaching out for support and connecting to others in our vulnerability.”
A stuck system
More broadly, as Ezekiel highlights, “The wellness industry has focused so much on enhancing mental health for those who have moderate or flourishing mental health in a way that further marginalizes individuals who have complex mental illnesses.
“We continue to see trends where individuals with mental illnesses disproportionately experience homelessness and incarceration, highlighting structural barriers and underinvestment in appropriate early interventions and treatment to support community members navigating these challenges.”
Supports for MENtal health
Josh Gitalis, clinical nutritionist and functional medicine practitioner, shares his advice on nutrition, herbs, and supplements, as well as lifestyle habits to support men’s mental health.
- Food is one of the most important foundations for emotional well-being—balance blood sugar by eating a whole-foods, plant-rich diet, with healthy fats and protein.
- For those undergoing high levels of stress, adaptogens can benefit the nervous system.
- Herbs such as rhodiola, ginseng, ashwagandha, and bacopa improve the response to stress, and allow for a quicker and more robust recovery.
- Take appropriate amounts of vitamin D—it regulates the entire immune system and is a key player in many aspects of brain health. The three most important factors in optimal mental health: sleep, exercise, and meditation.
- Lack of sleep has been shown to impair the mind comparably to being legally drunk—the average adult needs between seven to nine hours of sleep.
- Exercise stimulates the release of natural mood boosters like endorphins, which can boost mood for hours after the bout has been completed.Give exercise a try first thing in the morning to take advantage of the mood-boosting effects throughout the workday.
- Meditation has been shown to increase a brain chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes brain plasticity, in turn helping us to learn new things and keep the brain healthy.
Due to stigma, many men are hesitant to seek professional help for mental health concerns, and it can have tragic long-term effects.
Mental health and gender
Is there anything unique to men’s experiences of mental health and seeking help? We’re learning, and unlearning, more and more about gender, including its fluidity, and the dangers of imposing gender assumptions.
That said, statistics indicate that while women outnumber men in terms of reported depression and anxiety, more men are reported to experience addiction. And, that 75 percent of those who commit suicide are men.
Men’s mental health
Gender differences continue to persist, explains Ezekiel, in ways like less willingness to self-identify as experiencing a mental health challenge, and seeking help less often. As Vineberg points out, this may be because “there can be expectations of men to be ‘stable,’ ‘independent,’ and ‘reliable.\’”
Ezekiel notes, “Men are socialized within a society that equates vulnerability, experiencing emotions, and reaching out for help as weakness, and distinctly not a male trait or way of being.”
Boys and men, explain Exekiel, receive societal messages, definitions, and expectations of “manhood” and “maleness,” like needing to be “strong.” This toxic version of masculinity can in turn prevent the very “emotional intelligence, reaching out, and network-building critical to preventing or supporting mental illness.”
Vineberg adds, “Toxic masculinity is a mask, an energetic posture that provides a false sense of safety through a denial of vulnerability. In this place, he can’t really connect with another, or get his real needs met.”
Ready to reach out
How can men sense when it might be time to reach out for help? Ezekiel hopes men might do so if they
- notice that they’re not enjoying activities that usually bring joy
- feel a desire for isolation or disconnection
- sense regular low mood and irritability
- experience higher levels of conflict among family, friends, or colleagues
- struggle with stagnation or hopelessness for the future
- have physical manifestations such as needing too little or too much sleep, weight gain or significant unintended weight loss, or low appetite or low energy levels.
“When our organism is out of balance,” Vineberg says, “it communicates that to us. Unexpected bursts of anger are a common sign for men. But it could equally be bouts of crying or general and persistent discontent, agitation, boredom with one’s life, cheating on a partner or spouse, use of substances, or overworking to dull difficult feelings.”
What does Daryl Vineberg suggest to stay mentally well?
- simply put: physical exercise!
- psychotherapy – for individuals, couples, and in groups
- myriad forms of creative expression, like dance, music, singing, art, writing, cooking, and love making
- open-hearted contact with others
This article was originally published in the June 2020 issue of alive Canada magazine, under the title “MENtal Health.”