While the prevalence of mental health issues is largely equal for men and women, specific illnesses can be more common in one group or the other. This means that placing unequal emphasis on certain conditions can disadvantage a large number of Canadians. “The second most commonly diagnosed mental health disorder in Canada is addiction and substance abuse disorders and we don’t really talk about it,” says Dr. Patrick Smith, CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association. “We talk about depression, which is number one, and then skip over addiction and talk about anxiety and PTSD and other disorders that are much less prevalent. This is important because there are higher rates of substance abuse disorders in men than in women.”

Stigma disproportionately impacts men

The significance of the way the conversation is skewed becomes particularly clear when you realize that some mental health issues are more heavily stigmatized than others, and that men struggle disproportionately with this stigma. “Men are less likely to reach out for help when it comes to health issues in general, and especially so for mental health,” says Dr. Smith. “For men, there’s still a lot of stigma around mental illness. There’s a sense that they should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps. We need to recognize that having an illness is not a failure of moral character.”

Even though reluctance to seek care is a real obstacle, it is only half of the problem. “It would be nice to believe that once someone overcomes the stigma and reaches out for help, there is an available system of services and supports at the ready,” says Dr. Smith. “But that’s just not the case. In Canada, we put the lowest percentage of our health spending toward mental health out of all the G7 countries. It’s very un-Canadian of us to be lagging so far behind in our mental health investments.”

If all you have is crisis response, every problem becomes a crisis

The truth is that by investing more, and more wisely, on mental health services and supports, the system could directly save money. “The economic impact of untreated mental health issues is clear. The costs show up in emergency rooms, in the correctional and justice system, and in lost labour from the workforce,” says Dr. Smith. “If all you have is crisis response, which is largely the situation we have in Canada, then everyone eventually gets to the point of needing it. The cost of one ER visit and hospital admission could literally treat hundreds of people if that money were spent on early intervention.”

If we want men in Canada to be healthy in body and mind, we need to change the conversation about mental health in a way that both encourages men to seek help and also inspires new spending in community-based services that can provide cost-effective support early in the progression of mental illness, when it can do the most good.