Mental health study needs men

Strength in unity project aims to reduce mental illness stigma

Former Vancouver high school counsellor Rodrick Lal had a previous Asian male student attempt suicide by walking into the Fraser River.

“He hindered on maybe bringing shame to the family,” Lal said. “It’s funny, isn’t it? If he committed suicide it’s OK… But to say that he had a mental illness and needed psychiatric help, that would have brought shame on the family.”

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As a PhD student at Simon Fraser University and co-investigator with a community-based research project called Strength in Unity: Men Speaking Out Against Stigma, which aims to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness among men and youth in Asian communities, Lal hopes to prevent such incidents.

Sepali Guruge, a Toronto-based doctor of nursing, initiated the Strength in Unity project.

“That’s a key point,” Lal said. “Not a male, but a female that saw in the community that even the male professionals are not discussing this matter.”

While stigma about mental illness crosses cultures and backgrounds, evidence suggests Asian immigrants are among the groups least likely to seek help for mental health problems — a summary about the project states this has been attributed to stigma and saving face. Moreover, as asking for help is often characterized as a feminine trait or a sign of weakness, men are less likely to seek mental health services.

Other times, a man might want to get help but doing so might be considered shameful by his family.

“Coming from Asian or South Asian families, it’s interdependent, it’s not independent, so their family comes first and whatever the family dictates you have to abide by that,” Lal said. “The man may want to [seek help] but he’s caught in a double-bind.”

Movember Canada, a group dedicated to men’s health, granted the three-year project $3.3 million to train Asian men, age 17 and older, who have direct experience with mental illness, to reduce internalized stigma and to become community mental health ambassadors.

“We just want dialogue,” Lal said. “If we can do this in Canada, in British Columbia, we can change maybe back in India, China, Taiwan, Japan.”

Ambassadors will be encouraged to speak to business leaders, clergy, grandparents and parents about how mental health problems affect an estimated seven million people in Canada, or 20 per cent of the population, and how stigma that prevents someone who’s suffering from seeking help often leads to social isolation, more severe symptoms and serves as barrier to success in work, school and social situations. The project wants to see ambassadors communicate that seeking help takes strength.

“The vast majority of [Asian] people who go to university are middle class and they know [about] getting counselling,” Lal said. “And yet they can’t go three blocks [to get help] because no one has told them it’s OK.”

Ambassadors will raise awareness about the supports and services available and encourage communities to take up anti-stigma initiatives.

Participants will receive $50 for attending an information session and those who participate on a handful of Saturdays over three years will receive a $500 stipend.

Study sites include Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver and researchers are seeking close to 800 participant in B.C. Nearly 100 men in Metro Vancouver have signed up for an information session, but Lal says the project needs more teenaged males and men aged 60 to 66. Interested participants should sign up by March 15.

Researchers are to communicate their findings about what approaches work best and where money needs to go to provincial and federal governments at the conclusion of the project.

Lal said researchers might learn, for example, that it’s helpful to provide counselling in malls.

“This way here, when you tell people, ‘I’m just going to the mall,’ they don’t suspect anything, right,” Lal said.

For more information, see strength-in-unity.ca.

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