Opinion

Alarming numbers around men's mental health indicate need for national response

Many of our sons, fathers, brothers, husbands, colleagues and friends are in danger of suffering psycho-social difficulties and becoming isolated from society, writes Rob Whitley.

Many of our sons, fathers, brothers, husbands and friends are in danger of psycho-social difficulties

Men account for more than 75 per cent of suicides in Canada, and surveys indicate that Canadian men are around three times more likely to experience addiction and substance abuse compared to Canadian women.

This column is an opinion by Rob Whitley, an associate professor of psychiatry at McGill University and a research scientist at the Douglas Research Centre. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

A growing body of research indicates that a significant number of men and boys are facing substantial psycho-social difficulties, which manifest in a number of worrying statistics involving mental health, addiction and suicide.

To start, males account for more than 75 per cent of suicides in Canada. That's an average of 50 men per week dying by suicide.

Similarly, surveys indicate that Canadian men are around three times more likely to experience addiction and substance abuse compared to Canadian women. This includes alcohol, cannabis, and opioid abuse. Highlighting the scale of the problem, the British Columbia Coroners Service reports that males accounted for 81 per cent of drug overdose deaths in that province in 2020.

Evidence suggests that factors such as educational drop-out, unemployment and loneliness are strong determinants of mental health issues, including suicide and substance abuse. Importantly, these risk factors disproportionately affect men and boys.

Statistics Canada, for example, notes that one in four boys do not graduate from high school on time, a rate significantly higher than girls. Another study found that nearly 9 per cent of men aged 25 to 34 never graduated from high school, almost double the rate of similarly aged women.

Likewise, around four in 10 university students are male, and a lack of post-secondary education leaves people ill-equipped for the new economy. Surveys consistently indicate that men's unemployment rates can be particularly pronounced in certain demographics.

The unemployment rate for 25- to 29-year-old men who are actively seeking work, for example, is twice that of similarly aged women, the second-largest gender gap in all the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.

Moreover, there has been a massive decline in traditional blue-collar industries such as manufacturing, fisheries, and the oil and gas sector. This means fewer job opportunities for unskilled workers, particularly in certain rural areas and medium-sized towns across Canada that have little in the way of alternative employment.

The massive decline in traditional blue-collar industries has meant fewer job opportunities for unskilled workers. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Importantly, absence from the workforce can leave people bereft of pride and purpose, contributing to despair, alienation and isolation.

Indeed, recent surveys indicate high rates of loneliness in working-age men. An Angus Reid survey found that 63 per cent of 18- to 34-year-old Canadian men experienced considerable loneliness and isolation, compared to 53 per cent of similarly aged women. These results are similar to a recent U.S. study in which one in three young men said they always or often felt lonely, and more than a quarter said they had no close friends; again, higher than rates among young women.

Worryingly, evidence suggests that men also under-utilize mental health services, with statistics indicating that women are almost three times more likely to seek help through these services.

The reasons are varied, but some argue that these services are offered in ways that are typically unappealing to men. Indeed, there are many different modalities of healing, and studies indicate that men tend to prefer more informal action-based or group-based mental health services to formal one-on-one talk therapy.

However, these types of informal services are not always available, particularly in smaller communities. A lack of choice or access to mental health services can deter men from reaching out and seeking help, leaving them struggling in silence and alone.

Report hopes to fight mental health stigma after suicides in Bengali community

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After 13 young Bengali men in the Toronto area died by suicide over a span of two years, community members wanted to find out the reason. Their report found young men in the community came up against a stigma about discussing problems and pressures. 2:01

Clearly, all is not well with the mental health of a substantial portion of the Canadian male population, but this problem is typically overlooked by legislators and policymakers.

In contrast, other jurisdictions have recognized the importance of paying greater public and political attention to these issues. The U.K. House of Commons launched an inquiry into the mental health of men and boys in 2019, for example, an initiative supported by all major political parties.

Given the gravity of the situation, there's clearly an urgent need to create an analogous parliamentary inquiry here in Canada, with a free and frank discussion on the status of men's mental health and well-being in our society. This could include a critical examination of policies and programs in education, employment and health care that may be contributing to mental health difficulties.

Recognizing and addressing these issues that are faced by an alarming number of men and boys needs to be a part of national public policy. Otherwise, more and more of our sons, fathers, brothers, husbands, colleagues and friends are in danger of becoming alienated and isolated from society, leading to wasted potential, wrecked families and ruined lives.

If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts or having a mental health crisis, there is help out there:

  • The Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (phone) | 45645 (Text, 4 p.m. to midnight ET only) | crisisservicescanada.ca

  • Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868. You can also text CONNECT to 686868 and get immediate support from a crisis responder through the Crisis Text Line, powered by Kids Help Phone. Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca

  • In Quebec (French): Association Québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

  • Canadian Association for Suicide PreventionFind a 24-hour crisis centre


About the Author

Rob Whitley is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at McGill University and a Research Scientist at the Douglas Research Centre.

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