This is a guest post from Samantha DeLenardo, Co-Founder of the Student-Athlete Mental Health Initiative (SAMHI) , a non-profit champion working to reduce mental illness stigma in sport, to facilitate access to the resources needed to maintain mental health, and to advocate on behalf of student-athletes experiencing mental illness. Samantha completed her Master of Arts in Health Communication while playing varsity hockey, has three brothers, and is currently living in Ottawa, ON.
In 2011, the hockey world was stunned by three sudden deaths. First, Derek Boogaard, then Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak shortly after. In the span of less than an off-season, three professional athletes had died by suicide. I remember these tragic events acutely, partly because I am a hockey player and fan, but mostly because they prompted me to dedicate the next 20 months of my academic life to understanding male mental health and illness in the context of elite athletics. Much of this work would ultimately underpin many of the strategic directions for the Student-Athlete Mental Health Initiative. When I sat down with the young men participating in my study, I showed them this video featuring Michael Irvin who is one hell of a competitor and NFL Hall of Famer:
It’s two years later and I still get chills when I watch it, especially when Irvin says: “We don’t talk. We shut up, and we be quiet, and we don’t say a word and we implode.” Irvin is basically describing a learned pattern in many athletic and non-athletic males known as the “pain principle” or the denial of authentic physical or emotional needs (Sabo, 1999). Social conditioning, particularly in a competitive environment, teaches men that when they discuss their pain, either physical (“suck it up, dude”) or emotional (“what are you, soft?”), they are regarded as weak, so from childhood into adulthood many guys learn to shut up about their problems. I want to stress that this is a learned pattern, and patterns, even those that are shrugged off as “the way things are”, can be changed. More on that later. In sport, the “suck it up” mentality is often called mental toughness and is encouraged to help define an athlete's identity. Absolutely, there are situations where our ability to “suck it up”- to finish those last two reps, to wake up early for practice and stay late for individual skills work, to get beat and come back the next day fresh and ready for the fight- sets us apart from others. We get good at mental toughness, we have to.
Until recently, however, we haven’t really talked about mental health and illness in the general population. Even less attention is focused on these issues in a sport environment. But wait, don’t they say, “90% of the game is mental”? Sure, but often that 90% encompasses the mental toughness needed to perform in your sport, to score more goals, to finish the big plays, to not choke. The problem with getting good at this type of mental toughness is sometimes we miss the signs of a real problem, or maybe we see it, but for whatever reason - be it shame, fear, embarrassment - we put ourselves in isolation and try to cope on our own. Like Irvin said, “It’s the worst thing in the world for a man to do”. This retreat into isolation or reluctance to speak about or seek help for issues (not just mental illness) has perhaps led to suicide rates for males in Canada being three times higher than the rate for females (Navaneelan, 2012).
In fact, suicide in Canadian males has been described quite accurately as the “Silent Epidemic”, and in 2009, almost 3,000 men committed suicide (Navaneelan, 2012). There are a number of risk factors that could account for these types of statistics. One factor I believe that we have the power to change as a community are social norms and expectations around masculinity and health. In other words, those learned patterns touched on earlier. A lot of unwillingness to talk about problems perhaps stems from the inability to articulate what the problem is or what are your needs. Not because men can’t do it, but because maybe they didn’t have the opportunity or the right teacher to learn those basic communication skills. Instead, healthy coping skills seem to be replaced with unhealthy alternatives that are more accepted/expected like drugs and alcohol, violence, and risk taking (Addis, Mansfield, & Szydek, 2010). On the other hand, some theories posit that because things like asking for help or caring for one’s health have tended to be strongly associated with femininity, men will avoid such behaviours as a way to define their masculinity, or to position themselves as stronger than woman or even other men, i.e. “the most powerful men among men are those for whom health and safety are irrelevant” (Courtenay, p. 1389, 2000). Guys, if this is the case, I am sorry to tell you... you are losing that fight, but don’t take my word for it, see for yourself. The shift The shift is going to start small and slow- almost like… growing a moustache! Seriously though, think about Movember Canada and the work they are doing, which has expanded from prostate cancer to include the support of mental health initiatives. The Movember Foundation stated, “Masculinity is often negatively portrayed as the cause of men’s poor health behaviours and is viewed as something to be changed rather than accepted” (p. 2). I completely agree with this and with others who have suggested that masculinity can be a positive driver in changing unhealthy behaviours (Addis, Mansfield, & Szydek, 2010). I bet you can think of some great male role models or unsung heroes in your own lives. We need to tap into and grow these resources, but if we continue to shrug it off as “the way things are” or “he’s a guy, what do you expect?”, nothing changes. We lose. That phrase “unsung hero” might mean different things to different people. When I think about the phrase, loosely defined as someone who makes a substantive yet unrecognized contribution, one major thought strikes me when applying it to mental health and illness. Self-stigma is when a person internalizes the negative messages the public has about mental illness (in this case), and is often cited as more harmful than the illness itself (Hartman et al., 2013; Vogel, Wade, & Haake, 2006). As a friend or teammate, you have the power to be that unsung hero to someone who might be experiencing mental illness, whatever the severity. Don’t be derisive- be attentive, put down your phone. Educate yourself and talk to your buddy. No one is going to erect a monument in your honour, but making the effort to be there for someone is substantive - maybe even life-saving.
In closing, I wanted to throw out a question to this UHA audience to continue the conversation: Do you have innovative ideas about how to engage the men around you - your brothers, your fathers, your friends, your teammates - to think differently about their mental health? My contact information is below and I would love to hear from you. #HuddleUp
Co-Founder Student-Athlete Mental Health Initiative | Initiative santé mentale pour étudiants-athlètes
References: Addis, M. E., Mansfield, A. K., & Syzdek, M. R. (2010). Is “masculinity” a problem?: Framing the effects of gendered social learning in men. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 11(2), 77–90. Courtenay, W. H. (2000). Constructions of masculinity and their influence on men’s well-being: A theory of gender and health. Social Science and Medicine, 50, 1385–1401. Hartman, L. I., Michel, N. M., Winter, A., Young, R. E., Flett, G. L., & Goldberg, J. O. (2013). Self-stigma of mental illness in high school youth. Canadian Journal of School Psychology, 28(1), 28-42. Movember Foundation. (2014). The Movember Foundation: Canadian men’s health and well-being innovation challenge. Retrieved from https://cmh-ic.fluidreview.com/res/ Navaneelan, T. (2012). Suicide rates: An overview. Statistics Canada. Retrieved from http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/82-624 x/2012001/article/11696-eng.htm#cvsd Sabo, D. (1999) Pigskin, patriarchy, and pain. Reprinted in Paula S. Rothenberg (Ed.) Race, Class, & Gender in the United States: An Integrated Study. New York: St. Martin's Press (3rd edition). Vogel, D. L., Wade, N. G., & Haake, S. (2006). Measuring the self-stigma associated with seeking psychological help. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 53, 325–337.