TORONTO — Five thousand times a week, young Canadians across the country reach out for help from Kids Help Phone.
It’s confidential, anonymous counselling. No two conversations are ever the same, and they can’t be traced back to the caller.
The charity just conducted a research study and discovered that its counselling is highly effective; when kids reach out for help they have a significant reduction in distress.
But they also discovered another trend: 73 per cent of kids who call for help are girls.
At around age 13, calls from boys taper off and in “great numbers.” For the most part, they don’t return for counselling until 17 or 18 years old, according to Alisa Simon, vice president of Kids Help Phone’s counselling services and programs.
This trend with boys is consistent with all treatment programs – they are not reaching out during these critical years.
“So, it’s right in this developmental period, when boys are starting to figure out what it means to potentially be a man, and maybe they aren’t supposed to ask for help and really need to be tough,” Simon told Global News.
“We want to be teaching young people – boys and girls – it’s okay to reach out, we all have our challenges.”
Alisa Simon is the vice president of counselling services and programs for Kids Help Phone. She explains the trends with boys and how the charity hopes to reach out to them.
Mental health stigma keeping young men from seeking help
This stigma young men face during such a pivotal time in their lives left Asante Haughton struggling with mental health issues for years.
For part of his childhood, Haughton, now 27, lived in poverty, moving from a shelter to different homes with his mom and older brothers. By high school, he was dealing with severe social anxiety disorder and depression.
He suffered for six years in the dark, afraid of the stigma he’d face from classmates and friends for asking for help.
“We live in a society where men are supposed to be macho and you know not express what they feel and keep everything to themselves because that shows strength and that’s what society says. I think that’s why you get this thing where a lot of men don’t speak up,” Haughton said.
That’s why he shares his story with youth, through the TDSB program Stop the Stigma.
Asante Haughton shares his story and advice for boys as to why it’s so critical to speak up when you need help.
This week marks the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Mental Health Week. The organization estimates that the total number of 12 to 19 year olds at risk of depression is a staggering 3.2 million.
Children’s Mental Health Ontario is also marking its mental health week from May 5 to May 11.
Despite 24/7 services such as Kids Help Phone, many young men share Haughton’s story. Some 20 per cent of boys say they feel depressed on a weekly basis — they’re not asking for help, though.
Read more: Stress, anxiety plaguing Canadian youth
“Across all services, we see less young men accessing services. There’s a stigma still for young men, sort of a machismo, a need to be more independent,” Dr. Michael Ungar, a Dalhousie University social work professor, said.
It’s that notion that causes young men to avoid reaching out.
“They tend to see it as their own problem, something they are not supposed to talk about. There’s a lot more shame involved, sort of a weakness or a vulnerability,” Ungar explained.
Dr. Michael Ungar shares his advice on why boys don’t reach out and offers strategies to reach them.
Haughton says he experienced this firsthand: instead of confiding in a teacher or a friend, he tried to treat himself. He watched Dr. Phil religiously, hoping for some answers, he tried starting up a relationship with a crush, turning to sports or music. It didn’t fill the void, though.
“I wasn’t even sad anymore, I just felt empty and numb. I lost interest in everything,” he said.
It wasn’t until his second year of university that he sought professional help with counsellor.
“She did more to help me in six months than I was able to do for myself in six years,” she said.
Programs to increase awareness, promote outreach
Now, Haughton takes part in the TDSB’s Stop the Stigma program, which creates a forum — through school assemblies, lunch-and-learn sessions, and workshops.
He’s convinced the program holds value to youth who are too scared to speak up.
“The stigma made me feel ashamed, embarrassed, discriminated against and just not as good as other people,” he said.
“Stigma was the darkness, the obstacle preventing me from getting there. So looking back, I wish I had something like Stop the Stigma at my school and that people did talk about mental health then because then I would have felt more comfortable opening up about my issues and getting the help I needed sooner instead isolating myself and trying to do it on my own,” Haughton said.
Other times, he was hoping for someone to ask him how he was feeling. And to call his bluff when he was pushing them away.
“There were a couple of teachers I was close to, and some days I would sit at home and think, ‘tomorrow I’m going to tell them everything.’ But I never did because they never asked and all I really wanted was for someone to ask, just to get the ball rolling.”
Mental health discussion may help boys feel comfortable
Inroads can and have been made in fostering discussion of mental health issues and providing a safe outlet for boys to ask for help.
For starters, hearing Haughton’s story at a school assembly goes a long way.
Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey publically spoke about his struggles in a 60 Minutes interview. The high-profile pitcher spoke candidly about his bouts of depression, feeling overwhelming failure and pressure in his professional and personal lives. Dickey turned to therapy and confiding in his wife.
He’s a prime example of a role model stepping up and sharing his story that may help boys dealing with their mental health issues in the dark.
Comic books, games and movies are also mediums that boys may be influenced by. A Twitter feed about mental health also goes a long way, Ungar suggests.
Boys aren’t going to warm up to one-on-one counseling at the onset, Ungar said. It’s these venues that will pave the way to introducing conversation about mental health.
Kids Help Phone launched a pilot program of a new type of counseling: live chat. The demand has been great. They hope to fundraise and expand the service, hoping boys who may not pick up the phone will contact them that way.
Hear from Duane, a counsellor from Kids Help Phone, as he offers advice for boys, young people and families.
“There has been research to show that boys are more comfortable reaching out through technology than potentially picking up the phone and chatting,” Simon said. “Sometimes for boys putting words to what they’re feeling is really difficult, so using emoticons for example is a really, really useful way to try and express what is happening with them.”
In the meantime, Haughton says he wants young Canadians, male and female, to know that there is always someone to help.
“For young people, you don’t have to be alone, you don’t have to do it alone. If there’s only just one person who you trust, if you have one shoulder to lean on, use it,” he said.
“And do your best and be brave, even when you feel like you’re not strong enough. Even when you feel like you’re weak.”