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Men, mental illness and getting past stigma

Reference: FCC

Talking about mental health can be tough for anyone. For men, it can be even tougher.

Whether a holdover from older ideas of masculinity or unquestioned social norms around farmer self-reliance, discussing emotion and emotionally charged subjects can be particularly difficult for men. And statistics show farm operators are more likely to suffer mental illness than the general population.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though, according to Gerry Friesen and Sean Stanford – advocates working in agriculture who have lived with mental health issues. Both have managed to overcome barriers in discussing the subject and have spurred others to seek help.

Be self-aware

Self-awareness — understanding how you feel and why you feel that way — is an important life skill.

For Friesen, being self-aware is a key strategy for identifying when stress levels are getting too high. It was critical in his own mental health journey as he worked through the stresses of farming through the 2000s. Self-awareness facilitates a person to act, whether that means seeking professional help, or just talking to close friends and family.

Being aware of mental stress is not inherently easy. Friesen, who left farming in 2007 and now works as a speaker, coach and stress expert, says it can take time to understand what’s causing anguish. Once a person does become aware, however, sharing the problem with others can feel daunting. This is especially noticed when combined with feelings of isolation, both physical and mental, where an individual is convinced what they're going through is unique to them.

Stress is the rule, not the exception

The secret, says Friesen, is it’s not unique. Mental health struggles are closer to universal truth than individual anomalies, and being open about the subject often spurs others to share their stories. Friesen discovered this during a series of workshops he hosted in western Manitoba, specifically focusing on men and depression.

“Men do tend to react differently. It’s difficult to get men to talk. There’s still a stigma attached, but I’ve seen that change over time. They are more willing to open up now. They are open about stress management. People stand up and ask questions after I give presentations now,” Friesen says. “I’m in my sixties. I think we also have to focus on my generation because that’s where a lot of the problems lie at this point.”

“Out of my 23 years in farm mediation, I’ve noted that the ones a little older than me were very hesitant to talk about mental wellness and how it affects them, their relationships and the farm business. The younger generations are more open.”

The sheer scale of investment required to farm in the modern era has, in Friesen’s experience, added additional pressure on farmers – particularly male farmers who have been instilled with the merits of self-reliance. He believes it’s important to recognize what an extra “couple of zeros” on a cheque or bill can do to a person’s well-being, and that all farmers face math that often doesn’t add up.

“We need to be aware of what’s going on and be proactive in making changes. Farmers used to say ‘there’s always next year,’ but somewhere that catches up to us,” he says. “This is a really important message – you’re not alone.” Knowing this may help with opening up.

Continuing the conversation after it has been broached can also be difficult. Friesen encourages people to listen to loved ones who are struggling to normalize and validate how they are feeling. Let them know it's OK to feel the way they do and offer to support them in finding help at their own pace.

“What we do is lock ourselves into our closets and sit there because we don’t want anyone to know what’s going on. It’s a human tendency to want to yank people out. But that doesn’t work,” Friesen says.

Positive feedback overwhelming

Like Friesen, Stanford says the fear of negative feedback for not following what might be considered more traditional male behaviour can keep men from being open about mental health issues. It was something he considered himself. But after speaking about his own struggles, the feedback he received was overwhelmingly positive.

“I didn’t know what to do once I knew I was having issues. That was around 2017. So, I thought it would be wise to speak out and see if anyone could help, maybe we could collaborate and help each other,” Stanford says.

“There was lots of communication. I talked about it mainly on Twitter. Some people openly conversed with me there, but I was overwhelmed by the number of private messages and phone calls I received. Even then, there was some hesitance. It was an unknown world. No one knew what to say or expect.”

Stanford has remained open about mental health, advocating for mental wellness. It’s still not a comfortable thing to do, he says, but the importance of being open about mental health is clear. The most important thing to remember when trying to help someone is to ensure they know it’s OK to approach and communicate with you, he says.

“The stigma is lesser now for sure. Farming is also a higher-dollar game than it ever has been before. A lot more stress comes along with it as well,” he says.

“Be open and available. Be that available person for people who might need it. Everyone needs help at their own pace and their own time.” 

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