Although the stigma surrounding mental health challenges has begun to diminish, there remains much work to be done, especially when it comes to men’s experiences. Given that traditional gender norms remain prevalent, including outdated and one-sided ideas of “masculinity” as characterized by emotionless independence, it’s no surprise that men are reluctant to reach out for help. This social stigma can be all the more pointed in rural communities, where ideas about self-reliance tend to be deeply entrenched, as Edward Staples, President of the BC Rural Health Network, observes. Expectations that one is supposed to “man up” and “keep ploughing” cause many to suffer in silence.
Among the voices pushing back against these harmful attitudes is Allan Kehler, mental health advocate, international keynote speaker, and best-selling author. Having grown up in a small community in rural Saskatchewan, Allan speaks with in-depth and first-hand knowledge about the difficulties that those in small agricultural communities face when it comes to mental health. Earlier this fall, Allan shared his compelling and courageous story with interviewer Gerry Friesen, the Recovering Farmer, at one of the Stigma-Free Society’s Rural Mental Wellness Live Events. Their conversation confronted the damaging stereotypes and sense of shame faced by men in rural communities and offered the inspiring message that speaking out about mental health, as difficult as it may be, is profoundly rewarding. By becoming tough enough to talk about these difficult experiences, we can find freedom for ourselves and connection with others.
Opening a conversation about mental health can seem like a daunting task, but this work begins with very small steps. Asking questions that show interest in and concern for another person and their well-being can create opportunities for supportive connections.
During the Rural Mental Wellness Live Event with Gerry Friesen, Allan reflected on one of the “turning points” in his own journey: when one of his professors at the University of Alberta took a genuine interest in his well being. This professor opened the door for an authentic conversation by asking, “How are you doing today, Allan?” – a simple but significantly personalized version of what is all too often an automatic greeting.
Similarly, Lesley Kelly of the Do More Agricultural Foundation suggests several alternatives to the conventional greeting “how are you?” that set up a more sincere connection. Variations like “I’ve been thinking about you a lot. How are you doing?” or “What can I do to support you at the moment?” can send the message that you care. Kelly also emphasizes that one of the most effective ways to bring out an honest answer is to lead by example.
Reaching out for support, whether to a friend, family member, or professional, is seldom easy. The hardest part may be taking that first step. But though we tend to labour under the assumption that we are alone in these struggles, the reality is that many people can relate. The more that we challenge the myth of invincibility, the better we can understand vulnerability for what it is: a sign of strength, not weakness, and an opportunity to forge life-changing and life-giving connections.
As Allan highlights with humour and insight, it’s high time to challenge the culture of stoicism that causes people, especially men, to fear being perceived as weak. His most recent book, MENtal Health: It’s Time to Talk (2020), aims to shatter harmful stereotypes by harnessing the power of storytelling. Featuring the voices of many men from across the prairies, this book offers honest, impactful conversations about a range of topics including masculinity, mental illness, addiction, sexual abuse, and suicide.
Check out this short video, where Allan reflects on why the time to talk has now come.
For a brief preview of the book’s content, take a look at this impactful video that highlights contributor James Siemens.
- Buddy Up, a campaign by the Centre for Suicide Prevention, targets men’s mental health and offers practical strategies for supporting a friend who is struggling.
- Man Therapy.Org provides a wealth of tools for dealing with tough situations and maintaining wellness.
- Wellness Together Canada offers free, live access to trained counsellors and crisis responders:
- Phone Counselling: 1-866-585-0445
- Text (SMS): Text WELLNESS to 741741
- The Farmer’s Toolbox offers a thorough and descriptive list of mental health resources for those in agricultural communities, including helplines and support groups for those based in Ontario as well as many online resources accessible anywhere.
- The Rural Health Information Hub features links to and information about a range of mental health resources for those living in agricultural communities throughout the United States.