Thursday, 21 June 2018
Canada Of minds and men Many of my childhood friends are dead. Is masculinity to blame?
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/20/canada-why-have-so-many-guys-from-my-town-died-young-mental-health The blue-collar town of Kamloops has been riven by accidents, overdoses and suicides. After losing several friends, one writer returned to find out why Patrick Blennerhassett Wed 20 Jun 2018 11.00 BST Last modified on Thu 21 Jun 2018 11.22 BST ‘Plants, factories, camps and rigs closed down. Many of the men I grew up with struggled mightily to adapt’ Illustration: Lola Landekic for the Guardian I grew up in Kamloops, a small blue-collar city in British Columbia about 350km north-east of Vancouver. Kamloops wasn’t the middle of nowhere, but at the time it felt pretty close. I moved there with my family when I was in grade five, and early on my fate felt sealed: I was a mediocre student, and not good enough at hockey to catch the eyes of the scouts. The city’s small-town feel was coupled with a sense of isolationism, and in high school my friends and I spent our nights crashing house parties, playing hockey, getting into fights, drinking and taking drugs. When we graduated high school, it felt like a vast open field – part economic wasteland, part basecamp at the foot of a daunting mountain. Some of us went to college, but it seemed the only way to make substantial money was to join the resource labour force. My career options seemed limited to a local mine, mill, warehouse or oilfield. But the world was also changing drastically before our eyes. The millennium came and went. Globalization and the internet transformed the economy, and the workforce. The old-fashioned lunchpail jobs that had once been available to boys like me dwindled: plants, factories, camps and rigs closed down. Many of the men I grew up with struggled mightily to adapt. In high school, I’d lost a few classmates to suicide. As time went on, more boys I grew up with starting dying – in overdoses, car accidents, workplace tragedies and more suicides. By the time I was 25, it felt like a quarter of the guys I knew were gone. Funeral notifications were commonplace on my Facebook feed. The city of Kamloops with Thompson river. Facebook Twitter Pinterest The city of Kamloops with Thompson river. Photograph: Alamy I left Kamloops numerous times throughout my 20s, looking to reinvent myself and shed the vices I’d accumulated, and finally left the city for good in 2012 to chase a career in journalism and a new way of life in Vancouver. I abandoned many of my old friendships, as part of an effort to abandon that part of my past. But when I learned one day that my best friend from childhood had died, I found I could no longer ignore the seemingly endless tragedies of the Kamloops boys I’d grown up with who were now gone. I wanted to know what happened to these men I’d known, and why they died. So I went home to find out. *** The word Kamloops comes from the English translation of the local First Nations Shuswap saying Tk’emlúps, meaning “where the rivers meet”. The city was built as a major transportation hub in the late 1890s, with two major railways running through the heart of downtown like ventricular valves, carrying wheat, lumber and coal to the west coast. Our fathers were lunchpail baby boomers, rigid backbones of the postwar world. Nobody asked them about their feelings because they were too busy working. But by the time my generation sprouted up, there was a new cultural and societal landscape: less stable employment, more job competition – and none of the positive coping mechanisms to face the world. Nobody asked our fathers about their feelings because they were too busy working This feeling of insecurity and claustrophobia had been felt by my friend Chad Ivancevich, who took his life in 2010 at the age of 27 after a vicious battle with drugs, alcohol and what appeared to be a bleak future filled with hard-labour jobs. I met with Greg Smith, 36, a classmate and friend of mine from that time, who still lives in Kamloops and now runs Pizza Pi in the downtown core. Smith played in a rock band with Chad. “I had an intervention with Chad, probably a year and a half prior to his death, with a friend from the band,” said Greg. “There was a lot of tears. He ended up smashing things. He was just so angry at that time of his life. He was just lost. But he was not going to stop: it was what he was going to do. He told us that he loved us, but he wasn’t going to change.” Greg said part of survivor’s guilt is thinking you could’ve done more for someone who constantly refuses help for mental health issues or drugs and alcohol abuse. “They’re telling you they can’t change, and they’re asking you to understand,” Greg said. “As we grow older, we realize that really is the definition of life: if you don’t change and realize your faults and address them, you’re going down a very specific road.” Chad had learned the traditional masculine characteristics of our fathers and other men in cities across rural Canada: ill-equipped to handle (let alone display) emotion, unable to properly cope with psychological stress, and prone to view any form of vulnerability as weakness. Stoicism and anger were the primary emotions: great when facing death or danger, but crippling in everyday life; excellent on the hockey rink, but useless for navigating the rest of the 21st century. A recent study published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry titled Critical Issues in Men’s Mental Health outlines the “male depressive syndrome”. Diagnosis is tough. Men won’t report depression nearly as much as women, but they will lash out in anger, abuse drugs and alcohol, and take life-threatening risks. Most Canadian men, the study says, use “negative coping mechanisms” to deal with their problems, which invariably makes them worse and can lead to substance abuse, depression and ultimately suicide. Kamloops. Facebook Twitter Pinterest A man walks outside Kamloops. The city is reinventing itself as a university and sports tourism destination. Photograph: Michael Bennett/Getty/EyeEm According to Statistics Canada, suicide is one of the top three leading causes of death for Canadian men aged 15 to 44. On average, across the country, 50 men a week take their own life, and the suicide rate is three times higher for men than women. Nor is it just suicide. In a recent mortality report, Statistics Canada summed up the death bombardment men face today. From overdoses, to workplace deaths (nine out of 10 in BC are men), to car accidents (Canadian men are almost three times more likely to die in one than women), the report concluded: “At every stage of their life cycle, males are more likely than females to die.” Greg said he has lost so many friends to suicide that he had come to expect it. “I get this thing now, when I get the phone call, where you can almost tell,” he said. “You’re ready for it, because you know it’s happened and could still happen.” **** I used to play soccer with a boy called Simon Douglass. We went to the same elementary and high school. He was a bright and talented kid, but had a lack of fear and misguided sense of invincibility. As the years went by, I watched Simon bounce from rehab to relapse, unable to break the cycle of addiction. He died of a drug overdose in 2013 at the age of 30. Over a coffee in Kamloops, Simon’s mom, Penny, said she knows now her son’s brain was hardwired for addiction, noting he also suffered from ADHD. “I remember he was staying with us one night and he was freaking out,” she recalls. “He said to me: ‘Mom, there isn’t five minutes that goes by that I don’t think about using cocaine.’” Penny helps out in the local community at the courthouse and organizes support groups for parents of kids with drug and alcohol addiction. Her eldest son, Andrew, 39, is currently living at home after getting out of jail. He is addicted to fentanyl and heroin. More than 1,420 people died of illicit drug overdoses last year in BC – a record high – and four out of every five of them were men. “You think you’re the only parent going through this, and there is an element of shame that comes in,” Penny said. “But it’s nice to know we’re not the only ones going through this.” File photo of an oil pump jack pumps oil in a field near CalgaryAn oil pump jack pumps oil in a field near Calgary, Alberta, in this July 21, 2014 handout. With a sinking oil price driving Canadian energy shares to decade lows, activist hedge funds are pushing hard for companies to look at mergers and acquisitions or asset sales to curb costs and help the funds reduce their own investment losses. REUTERS/Todd Korol/Files Facebook Twitter Pinterest Photograph: Todd Korol/Reuters Jeff Conners, a Kamloops-based counsellor who focuses on men’s mental health, said men come into his office regularly with no roadmap for how to talk about their struggles. Job losses are huge triggers for depression and drug and alcohol abuse, and Jeff’s clients are weighed down with countless mental health issues and abusive dependencies. He said the important thing is to make sure the push to get guys to address their feelings isn’t cast as a war against the other sex. He noted 80% of men in Canada want to become fathers, and are at risk of passing on negative archetypes of masculinity down to their sons. “I’ve always seen this as an allied approach – we need to do this with women,” he said. “This isn’t men against women. One of the first things I did when I started focusing on men’s mental health issues is I went to the women’s resource centre and I said, ‘Look, I’m not against you. This isn’t ‘men’s rights’. I just want healthy men, and I want healthy kids and I want healthy communities.’” Connors’ suggested solution is simple: start more conversations. Force men’s mental health issues out from under the rocks and into the sunlight. Get guys talking – to each other, their spouses, friends and family, anyone. Let them know they only suffer in silence if they choose not to reach out. *** Once built on the shoulders of resource jobs, Kamloops is reinventing itself as a university town for international students and sports tourism destination as it creeps towards 95,000 residents. Culturally, it has grown immensely from the city I grew up in. An outcry recently forced the cancellation of a proposed copper-gold mine – a facility that would have created hundreds of local jobs, but would also have polluted the city’s air. One night I had beers with friends in a venue that is typical of the new Kamloops, a craft brewery downtown called Red Collar. Each of us around the table knew at least a dozen guys we’d lost over the years – to suicide, drug overdoses, workplace disasters and car accidents. The names came out like a roll call: Tim Frehlick, Darren Evans, Matt Hagan, Lance Richie, Adam Ayers, Bryn Taylor, Matt Dale. Two of the guys spoke about losing best friends in high school to suicide. Compiling the names of the deceased felt like a never-ending search, and we felt like surviving soldiers of some grim, randomized war. We agreed that leaving Kamloops, at least for a substantial portion of a guy’s life, was necessary – even life-saving. The city is now flourishing socially and economically, along with BC’s real estate boom, and a few of the boys have returned to different lives. But washing the dirt from our youth by escaping, even temporarily, felt like a crucial step. We also realised that all of us – living and deceased – had gone to the same now-defunct high school, John Peterson. The realization brought back the memory of my principal, Bob Cowden, who got to know every boy as they traversed the school’s hallways. When school’s away; the Boys will play; And a frozen bog just outside Grimsby provided the ideal setCANADA - JANUARY 01: When school’s away; the Boys will play; And a frozen bog just outside Grimsby provided the ideal setting Tuesday afternoon for Canada’s national pastime -- ice hockey. The cold Arctic air mass will continue to hold Southern Ontario in its grip today with highs of minus 3C (37.5F) predicted for most of the region. Niagara and Metro may even see a snow flurry. (Photo by Peter Power/Toronto Star via Getty Images) Facebook Twitter Pinterest Photograph: Peter Power/Toronto Star via Getty Images I tracked him down for the first time in 20 years. Cowden, who retired in 2007 after working at a number of schools across the city, said John Peterson can stand in for any high school in any rural Canadian town. “That is the real tragedy of all this,” he said. “Is that it could be anywhere here in town, or across the country.” Cowden said his son, who is the same age as me, left a high-paying first-aid job in Kamloops in his early 20s to travel the world, something he thinks is important for guys raised in small rural towns to ensure growth and reinvention. “I totally, absolutely believe in that. Because you have to step out and find your identity, you have to step out and find who you are. And you have to step out, shall we say, of your home, and begin to stand up for what you believe in.” 'Our society is broken': what can stop Canada's First Nations suicide epidemic? Read more Still, it makes no sense in my mind that so many of my friends are gone and I’m still here. I feel lucky to be alive, to have a new career and a future. Before returning to Vancouver I said as much to Justin McMonagle, another close friend growing up, who moved to Calgary in 2003 to work as an electrician. Justin also lost another of his close friends, Matt Grybos, who died in a workplace accident in 2009 at the age of 26, and his brother Mike, who suffered from schizophrenia and was killed by a car while jogging in 2013 at the age of 35. Justin agreed that it does at times feel as if the surviving boys of Kamloops, or of many other rural Canadian cities, are just lucky. “We all went into the deep end at one point or another in our lives,” he said. “We’re just the guys who were able to swim out and build a life out of it.” In Canada, the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention has a list of crisis centre hotlines. In the US, the National SuicidePrevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org Topics