Men's Mental Health on Campus: Breaking the Silence

Male students are a forgotten demographic with their own mental health needs.

Posted Aug 27, 2018

Millions of young people will shortly be commencing studies at universities and colleges across the country. This is a time of great hope, opportunity and excitement for most students. However some students face specific challenges which can result in poor mental health.

Indeed, the National College Health Assessment indicates that around one in four students suffer from a diagnosable mental illness, while a much greater proportion report feeling overwhelmed (around 70 percent) or very lonely (around 60 percent). This demands concerted action.

Gendered Differences

Men and women on campus experience mental health issues in different proportions. Women have higher rates of depression, anxiety and eating disorders. In contrast, men have higher rates of suicide, substance abuse, and are less likely to use official mental health services.  

There are numerous groups, organizations and offices on campuses across the country that are addressing women’s issues and advocating for the progress of female students. These are rarely seen as controversial and receive official support from various quarters.

However, there are very few groups focused on men’s issues and the advancement of men’s mental health. In fact, incipient men’s issues groups have been refused accreditation by student unions, and some have even been protested with violence.

For example, the Ryerson University Men’s Issues Awareness Society has been denied official recognition and support for many years. Likewise an invited lecture by renowned men’s health scholar Warren Farrell was met by protesters, scuffles and arrests at the University of Toronto.

What is the problem?

Some protesters and opponents of men’s issues groups see them as misogynistic ‘hate groups’. Such an attitude is propelled by a theory that men have power and control in society, and women are victims of such power. This is a rendering of the familiar villain/victim dichotomy.

However, such Manichean dichotomies do not reflect the nuances of reality. Indeed, I have visited many men’s issues groups. These groups often consist of equal proportions of men and women, discussing serious and proven issues affecting men on campuses and in society as a whole.

What issues are being discussed?

First, much focus is on educational issues. In many jurisdictions, the high-school drop out rate among boys is almost double that of girls, and men currently make up only around 40 percent of university graduates. Also, male students tend to under-utilize mental health services, meaning many suffer in silence, or self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. They need help.

Second, much focus is on social issues. For example, widespread economic changes have led to increasing unemployment amongst blue-collar and unskilled men, especially in rural areas. This can lead to family tension and divorce, resulting in isolation and alienation in all parties concerned, but especially male children. Students from such backgrounds may find discussion and support helpful.

Third, much focus is on health issues. Male students experience much higher rates of substance use disorder including alcohol and drug misuse. Likewise over 75 percent of suicides are made by men, and recent research indicates that suicidal ideation is much higher among male students compared to female students.

Indeed, these health issues are often given top priority by men’s issues groups, and I was recently invited to Simon Fraser University men’s issues group to give a lecture on male suicide (see below):

Poignantly, many students involved in men’s groups have personally faced many of the issues being discussed. I have learnt about tragedies concerning students’ fathers, brothers, friends or even themselves. These students have courageously decided to take action, despite the misrepresentations levelled against them. 

What next?

Men’s issues and men’s health groups provide a positive space for the discussion of issues such as suicide, substance abuse and school drop-out; all issues that disproportionately affect men. They can facilitate peer support and the sharing of useful information among affected students. This can lead to healthier students, healthier families, and a healthier society.

As such, I have written an open letter to student unions and university administrations to support such groups, given that these groups aim to discuss and address serious issues that are currently under-recognized.

This letter has been signed by prominent academics such as Dr Jordan Peterson, as well as notable national journalists such as Barbara Kay. The letter will be presented to the appropriate officials across campuses, and responses will be collated and shared with the public.

Three years ago, my former student and current Bloomberg journalist Natalie Wong wrote an excellent article for a student newspaper sub-titled ‘the silent crisis of men’s mental health issues on campus’. Sadly, little has happened since then, prompting radio personality Danielle Smith to pen an insightful article this summer entitled ‘the crisis no one is talking about.’

It’s time to stop the silence and start the talking. Now.