I have been participating on and off for five years now, and while the process is fun, and occasionally itchy, I have never gone deeper than to tell myself that I was helping to support men. A group that despite appearances, needs a lot of help. While issues such as colon and testicular cancer have been at the forefront of Movember activism since the beginning, it is only more recently that focus was put on the number one non-accidental killer of men age 18 to 45: depression and suicide.
Those numbers shocked me when I read them, but they were confirmed when I spoke to Dr. John Oliffe, a professor at the School of Nursing, University of British Columbia, and founder UBC's Men's Health Research program. While suicide is often seen as an issue for teenagers and young adults, often focusing on girls, the numbers are staggering and unexpected for adult men.
Dr. Oliffe explained how one of the main issues is how our culture defines what it means to be a man. Men tend to be resistant to professional help because many of the leading causes of depression and suicide are seen as weakness points for men. Depression is pitched as a woman’s issue.
“We often talk about masculinity and what it is to be a man,” said Dr. Oliffe. “That’s a problem. Men are expected to be rational, not vulnerable.”
Men still internalize the idea that they are supposed to be providers, protectors, the strong ones, explains Dr. Oliffe. This severely hinders their ability to seek out help and advice for their problems. In my personal experience, the changing gender roles in our society, which are overwhelmingly positive on the whole, are also causing a kind of crisis of identity amongst many men.
This is the argument of many feminists, that the patriarchy not only hurts women, but men as well by forcing them into a rigid definition of what being a man means. While I have a conflicted view of the concept of the patriarchy, the point does make sense. Men often don’t feel like they have permission to be more vulnerable.
Dr. Oliffe and his team at UBC have come up with a unique way to combat this stigma. Dr. Oliffe uses a strength-based approach to encourage men to talk about their issues. By relying on men’s desire to protect and be strong for others, they allow them to explore their own issues by helping others. In one program he runs for military veterans of Afghanistan, men are approached and asked to help other men discuss their issues with PTSD. They are recruited as facilitators, but once in the program they feel more comfortable opening up about their own issues. Camaraderie becomes the gateway to getting help themselves.
For regular guys, Dr. Oliffe recommends a similar approach using their friends. By offering to help their friends with their issues, and feeling open enough to discuss personal matters, it gives them permission to talk about their own problems.
“The explicit permission of other men to be open and vulnerable is the lynchpin to breaking those norms. With another man, the opportunity to vent, to say it out loud, can really help,” said Dr. Oliffe.
Dr. Oliffe says that men often worry that seeking professional help will result in them being medicated, which will take control away from them. Instead, he recommends self-management techniques such as mindfulness and meditation to help cope with feeling of anxiety or depression. There is no one ideal way of managing feelings of depression, each person is different, so Dr. Oliffe recommends guys develop their own system of what works for them.
“It’s your own playbook,” said Dr. Oliffe. “Take the strategies that work for you. Don’t feel tied to any one way. When Peyton can’t get the running game going, he starts throwing the ball.”
This playbook is something I have been experimenting with. You see it dawned on me that the reason I feel compelled to participate in Movember is that I have struggled with many of these same issues. Depression is something that has plagued me for years, and it is only more recently that I have recognized it and started to address it.
The thing is, I have always felt like I was the kind of guy who wouldn’t be trapped by the macho “gotta be a man” stuff, but it’s harder to escape than it seems. My struggles have made me reevaluate a lot of my views on things, and I feel a lot better about being more accepting of the idea that sometimes I need help. The work Dr. Oliffe is doing at UBC is thanks to nearly $3 million in funding through Movember Canada, money that he says is unprecedented in the men’s mental health research.
The Movember campaign is fun and kinda silly, but what really matters is that it’s working, bringing attention and funding to often overlooked men’s health issues. If you feel like helping out, you can sponsor my mo, or anyone else’s at movember.com.