Chris Wilson at his fire pit, where he hosts the North Grenville Men’s Mental Health Group in good weather.

Chris Wilson has started a men’s mental health support group. The North Grenville Men’s Mental Health Group will be hosting bi-weekly gatherings for men who feel they could use some mental health support, or who feel that they could offer someone mental health support.

According to Statistics Canada, 10% of men have symptoms of surveyed mental health disorders or substance dependencies. This number, however, would likely be closer to 25% if acute cases, or cases not readily self-reported, were to be included. Frankly, everyone experiences times of poor mental health: one does not need to have a diagnosed disorder to need time and resources for coping with stress, anxiety, uncertainty, or sadness. And yet, it seems there is little discussion about men’s mental health.

For Chris, this is underpinned by a gender stigma. He explains, “Men don’t usually talk as much as women do. It seems they often have a hard time explaining what their emotions are. I think society values men based on their ability to produce, or provide. So, as soon as a guy comes out and says, ‘hey, I’m really struggling with this, I need help’, it’s like their value instantly goes down. And I experienced that firsthand.”

Starting around the age of 18, Chris developed severe anxiety. Over the next several years, this anxiety developed. “I started to get heart racing, trouble going to sleep. I was just constantly worried, and thinking about things that were bad. Even things that were not likely to happen, I was always jumping to the worst case scenario.” Chris also developed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and then an eating disorder. He lost 70 pounds. Based on his mental situation, Chris felt that something was not right. But it took 15 years from his first symptoms to finally be diagnosed with Lyme disease. “It was only when physical symptoms started showing themselves, like losing control of my extremities with numbness, tingling, or twitching and stuff like that, that my doctor really sort of took it seriously and started to do the testing I had been asking for the whole time.”

Lyme disease is the underlying condition for many of the mental health challenges Chris has faced. Severe anxiety is a symptom, as is a red meat allergy that caused Chris to distrust his food. But Chris’ mental health symptoms were not taken seriously in the medical system, and he didn’t have a place for conversation that would help him gauge how serious his condition was.

“People might be suffering, but think their mental health symptoms are normal. That’s what happened to me. They develop slowly over time and it becomes normal. I thought everybody got into bed and worried for two hours, three hours a night, before they could fall asleep. But if I had been able to talk to my friends about how I was suffering, they could have told me that it’s not normal.”

Chris was inspired to start a men’s mental health group so that men could have a stigma- and judgement-free place to talk about stresses, symptoms, or emotions. Simply talking can “help people get some type of measuring stick to gauge how bad their mental health is.” Therapy or counselling is, of course, the best way to deal with one’s mental health problems; but most people do not have regular therapy benefits, and therefore experience access barriers to such services.

The point of a men’s group is not to be exclusionary. Chris says that anyone who identifies as a man is welcome in the group, and that he would love to see similar women’s or mixed support groups pop up in the area as well. The purpose of this group, however, is to provide a space specifically for men who feel most comfortable in a men-only setting.

For now, Chris plans to host regular informal bi-weekly gatherings at his home in Kemptville. He and his wife Rachel bought a 15-acre property, and hope to use it “to try to help people. We experienced a lot of hardship, and know that just a little bit of help can go a long way.” As the group moves forward, Chris hopes to include guest lectures and workshops. But the group isn’t just about talking about heavy problems, he explains, “It will be a fun group, but a group where it’s expected that negative emotions or feelings might come up, and no one will lose friends because of it.”

The first gathering was held on August 21. Five men gathered at Chris’ campfire. The next gathering will be on September 4 at 7pm.

For more information, email Chris at christoper_wilson1@hotmail.com, or join the Facebook group at www.facebook.com/groups/818882188721148.

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