Thousands of young people will shortly be commencing studies at universities and colleges across Canada. As we know, this is a time of great hope, opportunity, and excitement for most students. However, some students face specific challenges during their post-secondary studies, which can result in poor mental health.
Indeed, the National College Health Assessment indicates that around one in four Canadian students suffer from a diagnosable mental illness, while a much greater proportion report feeling overwhelmed (around 70%) or very lonely (around 60%). This demands concerted action from university faculty and administrators.
Evidence suggests that men and women on campus experience mental health issues in different proportions. Women have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. In contrast, men have higher rates of suicide, substance abuse, and are much less likely to use official mental health services.
There are numerous groups, organizations, and offices on Canadian campuses that are addressing women’s issues and advocating for the progress of female students and women in general. These are rarely seen as controversial and receive official support from various quarters.
However, there are very few groups focused on men’s issues and the advancement of men’s mental health. In fact, incipient men’s issues groups have been refused accreditation by student unions, and some have even been protested with violence.
For example, the Ryerson University Men’s Issues Awareness Society has been denied official recognition and support for many years now. Likewise, an invited lecture by renowned men’s health scholar Warren Farrell was met by protesters, scuffles, and arrests at the University of Toronto.
What is the problem?
Some opponents of men’s issues groups see them as misogynistic ‘hate groups’. Such an attitude is propelled by a theory that men have power and control in society, and women are perpetual victims of such power. This is a rendering of the familiar villain/ victim dichotomy.
However, such Manichean dichotomies do not reflect the nuances of reality. Indeed, I have visited many men’s issues groups, observing their discussions and activities. These groups often consist of equal proportions of men and women, discussing serious issues affecting men on campuses and in society as a whole.
What issues are being discussed?
Firstly, much focus is on educational issues. In many jurisdictions, the high-school drop-out rate amongst boys is almost double that of girls, and men currently make up only around 40% of university graduates. Also, male students tend to under-utilize mental health services, meaning many are suffering in silence, or self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. These issues need urgent attention.
Secondly, much focus is on social issues. For example, widespread economic changes have led to increasing unemployment amongst blue-collar and unskilled men, especially in rural areas. This can lead to family tension and divorce, resulting in isolation and alienation for all parties concerned, but especially male children. Students from such backgrounds may find discussion and support helpful.
Thirdly, much focus is on health issues. Male students experience high rates of substance use disorder including alcohol and drug misuse. Likewise, over 75% of suicides are made by men, and worryingly recent research indicates that suicidal ideation is much higher among male students compared to female students.
Poignantly, many students involved in men’s groups have personally faced many of the issues being discussed. On my travels, I have learnt about tragedies concerning students’ fathers, brothers, friends, or even themselves. These students have courageously decided to take action, despite the unwarranted accusations and misrepresentations levelled against them.
Men’s issues and men’s health groups provide a positive space for the discussion of issues such as suicide, substance abuse, and school drop-out; all issues that disproportionately affect men. They can facilitate peer support and the sharing of useful information among students. This can lead to healthier students, healthier families, and a healthier society.
As such, I have written an open letter to student unions and university administrations asking them to support such groups, given that they aim to discuss and address serious societal issues. This letter can be read here. It has been signed by prominent academics such as Dr Jordan Peterson, as well as notable national journalists such as Barbara Kay. I ask all SAFS members to consider signing the open letter. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will add your name to the letter.
Likewise, it is my hope that this letter will be presented to the appropriate people on campuses across Canada in the next academic year. I ask SAFS members to consider presenting the letter to administrators at their own institutions. All responses (or lack thereof) can be shared with me. I can collate them and put into the public domain; an ideal opportunity to see which universities are ‘walking the talk’ with men’s mental health.
Almost three years ago, my former student and current Bloomberg journalist Natalie Wong wrote an excellent article for a student newspaper sub-titled “The silent crisis of men’s mental health issues on campus”. Sadly, little has happened in the interim, prompting radio personality Danielle Smith to pen an insightful article last summer entitled “the crisis no one is talking about”.
It’s time to stop the silence, and start the talking. Now.