'Hyper-masculine environment' contributes to higher rate of suicides in oilpatch

CBC Digging in the Dirt documentary shares stories of oilpatch workers' poor mental health experiences.

Digging in the Dirt documentary tells story of oilpatch workers' mental health experiences

A combination of isolation, instability in the market, long hours and a 'very hyper masculine environment' all contribute to higher suicide rates among oil patch workers, said Omar Mouallem, co-producer of Digging in the Dirt. (Photo supplied by Omar Mouallem)

In a house that looks like a warm little cabin in Grande Prairie, Alta., Aly Floen is looking through photo albums. Pictures of her son, Dallen Head, stare back. His class photos are carefully framed on each page, marking time with a handwritten scrawl: Grade 5, 10 years old. Grade 6, 11 years old. 

Head was a fun-loving, energetic kid, his mother says in the CBC documentary Digging in the Dirt, who grew up to work on the rigs. He took his own life in September of 2006, at 26 years old.

The film takes a close look at stories like Head's from Alberta's oilpatch, where workers are suffering mentally at a disproportionately high rate. 

"[Head] never really told me anything about his emotions or things like that, and I regret maybe not trying to get more out of him," Floen said. "Deep down, I knew he wasn't going to make 30."

Watch Digging in the Dirt on CBC Gem:

A combination of isolation, instability in the market, long hours and a "very hyper-masculine environment" all contribute to higher suicide rates among oilpatch workers, Omar Mouallem, co-producer of the film, told The Homestretch.

"You have a very hyper-masculine environment where it is difficult to say the least to be vulnerable, to express your emotions, to ask for help. Not asking for help is the thing that is leading so many men to take their own lives," said Mouallem.

'We all know the stereotype … [and it] is a trope'

Throughout the documentary, Mouallem and co-producer Dylan Rhys Howard allow three men employed in the oilpatch to tell their own harrowing stories of mental health. Experts also weigh-in and discuss what solutions could look like.

"We all know the stereotype, right, the young, uneducated single man living with reckless abandon ... that is a trope," said Mouallem.

"Anyone who's been in a camp will tell you it's one of the most ethnically diverse places you can be. There are people from all walks of life."

"The only true stereotype is it's an overwhelmingly male workforce," said Mouallem.

The majority of people employed in the oilpatch are men. A mere 7.1 per cent of women in Alberta were reported to be in the trades and trades-related industries according to the Statistics Canada Labour Force Survey.

Chris Johnson is an Edmonton crane operator with bipolar disorder who shares his story in Digging in the Dirt, a CBC documentary. (Photo supplied by Omar Mouallem)

However, beyond gender, generalizing these employees is hard, as there are a wide range of ages, educational backgrounds and ethnicities represented in the patch.

And while records are no longer kept in Alberta on the occupations of victims of suicide, Mouallem says older studies indicated occupations in industry and trades had the highest rate of suicide.

According to the Centre for Suicide Prevention, Alberta suicide deaths rose between 2015 to 2017.

'I think it kept me sick for a long time'

Former oil worker Dennis Shinski was friends with Dallen Head. 

In the documentary, Shinski remembers mourning the loss by doing cocaine at Head's funeral. 

"I couldn't put the drugs down or the alcohol down," Shinski said. "I didn't want to go get help. What I learned about being a man was to figure it out. What I learned … [is] that a man doesn't ask for help, and he has to figure it out on his own. I think it kept me sick for a long time."

Substance abuse, psychologist Dan Bilkser says in the film, is frequently encouraged within the culture of hyper-masculine environments — and often as a coping mechanism.

"Men are often associated with the approach of stoicism," Bilkser said. "The downside of it is ... men who are dealing with suffering and are taught to say nothing about it, who are being taught to take no action, who are isolated, and who ... are being encouraged to drink more as a way of dealing with that distress." 

“Men are often associated with the approach of stoicism,” psychologist Dan Bilkser said on Digging in the Dirt. “The downside of it is ... men who are dealing with suffering and are taught to say nothing about it."

Eventually faced with losing everything, including his home and his girlfriend, Shinski said he was finally motivated to see an addictions counselor. 

He is now an advocate for mental health, and has left the oilpatch to pursue social work.

"I enjoy responsibility today," Shinski said. "I enjoy being accountable to other people and … being me, and not having to keep that other life going. All I can talk about is a sense of freedom."

Surprising findings

Contrary to a widely held belief, oilpatch employees' mental health has not only been negatively affected by the economic downturn in 2015 and 2016 but is an ongoing struggle that has been happening "for a long time," Mouallem said.

"What surprised me is when I talk to mental health experts, to mental health nurses, crisis intervention experts they said ... we are certainly seeing more people who feel despair because they've lost their jobs or they can't keep up with [their] finances, but this has been going on for a long time," Mouallem said.

In the documentary, some oilpatch employees told Mouallem that their mental health actually worsened during the oil boom due to high work demand.

"Some people said to me that it was worse during the boom. That there was so much speed ... to the industry that the behaviour became reckless for a lot of people, that they weren't able to slow down and look after their psychological needs," said Mouallem.

Edmonton crane operator Chris Johnson was interviewed for the documentary. He said the economic downturn actually allowed him time to look after his mental health.

"I went in to work one day, and one of the guys went to give me a signal to do something with the crane, and I was crying," Johnson said.

"That's when I was lucky enough to get referred to a psychiatrist right away, and get my diagnosis and start the long process of controlling my bipolar disorder."

To the future

Mouallem believes the "biggest obstacle" these men face is "men just don't really like asking for help."

"It's hard to be vulnerable when you're surrounded by that environment."

But on the horizon, there is hope. Shinski and Johnson are optimistic that the culture is beginning to evolve, but emphasize that men need to start — and keep — talking.

"I feel like [the oilfield] is changing, and people are a little more open to talking about things," Shinski says. 

"Taking care of each other in the workplace can be huge. But if we're not talking about it, we're never going to get to a solution."

Digging In The Dirt is part of the CBC documentary series Absolutely Canadian available on CBC Gem.

With files from The Homestretch