Movember’s Mitch Hermansen Talks Men’s Mental Health

Today we sat down with Mitch Hermansen, Director of Development for the non-profit Movember foundation. The Movember foundation focuses on men’s health – it originally started with a focus on prostate cancer and while it always approached issues in a holistic manner, in the past few years, its taken more of a whole-health approach, by tackling mental health beginning in 2012.

The foundation started with a couple of guys sitting in a bar on a Sunday afternoon talking about mustaches. They decided to get 30 of their friends to each grow one, culminating in a party. But as they got through the month, they realized that the mustaches were garnering attention and reactions. They thought, “why not put a cause to it?” At the time, prostate cancer was the biggest men’s health issue, and enough funds were raised that in 2007 when the organization expanded to Canada, they raised over 200 million dollars. After realizing that so many aspects of men’s health could be funded, they turned to equally pressing mental matters.

For one, there’s the shocking statistic that the leading cause of death between Canadian men ages 15-44 is suicide and 1 in 10 Canadian men will experience major depression in the course of their lives. A large part of that is due to the extremely genderized stereotypes and stigma stacked against men when it comes to expressing feelings and reaching out for help. There’s a massive hush-hush mentality and stigma surrounding men and mental health, whilst women aren’t nearly as attacked for seeking out help. Mitch explains “Boys are taught from a very young age that emotions aren’t manly, and the only option is to tough it out. When those boys grow up and are forced to cope with issues like divorce, or job loss, they bottle their feelings up and isolate themselves, often slipping into depression. The way that men show their depression is different from women. They hole it up inside, self-medicate through drugs and alcohol, start getting aggressive, and stop doing hobbies that they’re used to doing. This behavior can lead you down a road of isolation, increase anxiety or depression, and worst case scenario, spin into suicide”

In terms of Mitch’s personal connection to the Movember foundation, there’s a strong one. 

Both of his grandfathers suffered from mental health challenges. “With my grandpa on my dad’s side, they always told me that he ‘passed away in his sleep’, but when I was 14, they told me the real story. He was a Danish tradesman who was tough as nails but ultimately was offered a retirement package. About a year into his retirement, he slipped into a depression and struggled to the extent that he took his own life. My other grandfather went downhill when my nana died of lung cancer. He self-medicated through alcohol and over the course of three years, drunk himself to death. He would fall down during drunk episodes and damage himself to the point of internal bleeding – one time, he bled out and passed away. “

Men in their later years often have the highest rates of suicide. This is sometimes due to the fact that so many men put the entirety of their life’s meaning into work, and without it, their life feels like it loses meaning. A lot of the time, personal relationships that men have come from work, or they lose contact with old friends, so the reality of post-retirement can be very lonely. But their lives could have been saved if their generations weren’t so ingrained in holding in your emotion, and they had people to talk to. Mitch tells us, “Years later, working for Movember, I realize that both of them ultimately died from mental health challenges, and wonder, ‘what could they have taught me”? I’ll never know, and that’s why part of our campaign messaging reads loud and clear: “stop men dying too young.”

So in order to stop doing that, it’s vital that we encourage men to self-empower, and empower one another through male friendships. We need to find away to encourage men to keep their friendship thriving, and keep them reaching out to each other. Women are more candid in reaching out to strangers in a yoga class, or a bakery through compliments or a funny icebreaker, but men aren’t as comfortable in that realm. When men were asked if there was someone in their life that they could talk to if they were going through a serious life problem, 25% of guys said they couldn’t, which means millions of isolated men. Mitch offers a solution: “I think just being aware of having social connections as an important factor in mental health, Men don’t really think about that so just the acknowledgment will increase awareness. My advice is to just make time. Phone up that friend you’ve been meaning to call for 3 years. Book an annual trip with your buddies that becomes a tradition. Women are a huge part of the equation as well – they get us going to the doctors, and to put a focus on self-care, as well as encouraging men to get out and do things with their friends.”

Movember funded research looked at men’s social connectedness and found that men become lonelier as they reach their 30s.  The reason being: life gets busy: men get married, have kids, grow their career, and life stresses take over. Movember recently announced a $5.2 million program to fund creative, innovative projects with the aim of improving social connections  — which is a key protective factor for men against anxiety, depression, and potentially suicide.

To dismantle our society’s  narrative of toxic masculinity, which ends up being a killer of men, people need to actively educate themselves and become aware. Many people don’t know the difference between mental health and mental illness. Mental health is simply an aspect of makeup in the same as physical, spiritual, and sexual health. “It’s a challenge for all of society, and organizations, and parents, to do better, and educate themselves. We’re not taught about this in school, so we need to challenge ourselves to learn the tools and learn where to go to seek help, along with how to be the best support system for our friends and loved ones.

In 2017, therapy is more popular than ever, but in an alternative format: Skype, chat, and phone sessions. Now men can express themselves without the stigma of going to an in-person therapy session. Now they can reach out from the comfort of their own home. Movember itself even offers their own feature called “Bro Talk”. Mitch agrees that it’s an amazing contemporary resource to seek help: Men aren’t likely to go to the doctor, but they are going online, so we went where they were. Statistics show that boys are phoning in but stop calling at age 12, around the age when this toxic masculinity kicks in. That’s why, along with our kids’ line, we have a “tool resources” section targeted towards young men. Counsellors are specifically trained to deal with those issues in their language from after-school, to 2 am, and are available by phone or chat. It’s a great resource with a ton of success stories. An amazing resource is also headsupguys.ca, an online space targeted for guys where they can learn about mental health and relate it to their own.”

It often feels like going into murky waters when asking if a friend is ok – when do you ask? And how? Is there ever a time where you shouldn’t ask? Movember offers a document on their website on how to have that conversation, but Mitch offers some additional tips: “asking if someone is ok is always good. We need to educate ourselves, but don’t need to be the expert or have the solutions. Listening is the best gift you can give. On our site, we offer a document on how to have that conversation. It’s not easy to bring this change to society and these conversations with friends – masculinity is so ingrained from movies to sports, to music videos. Guys don’t talk about these things, but they do talk about Movember. You can see that mustache right on their face, and that mustache is the visibility that we need to bring light to these issues.”

Part 1 of a 5 part series.  Click here to learn more about the Movember foundation.

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