A hockey player, a bodybuilder and a sex coach sit closely together on a black leather couch. They look directly into the camera before them.
In the wake of recent campus-wide mental health crises, these men are sending out a message for the entire student body of Western University, and by extension anyone on the world wide web coping with mental illness.
“We want you to know you have three new friends […] We’ve all been through our own mental health issues, and we’re totally open to talking about it,” declares Shawn Evans, 34, from the centre of the couch.
Evans (the certified sex coach) is the creator of Sex & Suicide, a mental health-themed podcast filmed in the den of his London, Ontario home since February 2017. His co-hosts Paulie O’Byrne (the hockey player) and Scott Milne (the body builder) nod along from their seats at either side of him.
The trio typically spends over an hour discussing anything and everything related to sex, mental illness, abuse, trauma, consent, addiction, and recovery during the podcast’s weekly flagship series dubbed Soulfire Sundays.
They are not psychiatrists. They are simply a group of men wanting to connect to their listeners with one honest conversation at a time.
No topic is off limits.
“These are the conversations I wish I had with my roommate,” says Evans, who lost his roommate and best friend to suicide in 2015. “The Sunday podcast is for everyone, but having three guys sitting on the couch talking where me and my roommate used to talk feels like it’s paving the way for other big strong guys to realize that they’re not alone.”
Evans emphasizes Sex & Suicide’s universality to his diverse base of over 20,000 fans on social media, yet he also strives to eliminate the stigma men face when coping with mental illness.
“I felt like for the longest time there was this painted image of guys having to keep their emotions inside. I don’t think it’s healthy, and I think it’s time we break that down,” says Evans.
Despite the growing public discussion about mental health, many men face gender-based hurdles.
“About 75 per cent of the suicides in Canada are by men,” says Robert Whitley, PhD, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at McGill University whose research interests include men’s mental health. “Men also have much higher rates of addiction issues; about 80 per cent of deaths in the national fentanyl crisis are men.”
Communication can mean the difference between improvement and decline for many individuals. But when it comes to talking about their emotional struggles, one of the key obstacles men face are socially-imposed expectations of traditional masculinity.
“Men are less likely to ask for help for a number of reasons,” says Josh Beharry, project coordinator of Heads Up Guys, a men’s mental health advocacy group based at the University of British Columbia and funded by the Movember Foundation. “Some of these are perceived weaknesses associated with depression, not recognizing the signs, or not being able to accurately articulate or express their experiences. Many men rarely talk about their emotions, and simply don’t know where to begin.”
Evans’ Sex & Suicide co-host Paulie O’Byrne, 32, was sexually assaulted by a hockey coach at the age of 21 and felt unable to talk about the event or its impact for a number of years. Instead, he turned to drugs and alcohol to escape his debilitating depression and PTSD.
Through his foundation I’m One in Five, O’Byrne now speaks publicly across the country about his experiences in hopes that he can change social mindsets towards all those affected by addiction, mental illness, trauma, and victimization. But he maintains that gender-based stigmatization contributed to his inability to initially reach out for support.
“I don’t care about the barriers now, but they’re definitely there when you’re asking for help for sexual abuse if you’re a man,” says O’Byrne. “There are barriers because we’ve been told to man up, solider up, don’t cry. We’re raised to work hard and not complain, but we have to look after our mental and emotional health.”
Via Sex & Suicide, Evans and O’Byrne extol what they believe to be a solution-based mentality, with many of their candid conversations touching on cognitive behavioural therapy and meditation.
Above all, they promote the importance of human-to-human connectivity.
It’s a message that hits home with Western student Ryan Henderson. Having been diagnosed for anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder in 2012, Henderson now volunteers at Western’s Wellness Education Centre.
For Henderson, the dialogue held in media like Sex and Suicide is a step in the right direction when it comes to paving a clearer way for men to talk without shame.
“I felt their message was one that all students can take and feel comfort by in knowing these individuals have lived experiences,” said Henderson of the podcast addressed to the school. “Something you realize once you’re humbled by mental illness is that we’re all human, and that we’re all affected by the same thoughts and feelings.”
By wielding the power of the podcast, Evans is optimistic he can help to make it a bit easier for men to address their anxieties without fear of losing respect from their families and peers. Ultimately, he and his male co-hosts want every listener to know that being strong can sometimes mean allowing oneself to be vulnerable, and open to establishing connections with individuals who share the same experience.
Writer’s note: This article was written in December 2017 in the wake of two sudden Western student deaths. Since then, two more students have passed away. At least one of them struggled with depression. The call for the prioritization of mental wellness services for everyone, on and off campus, rings louder and clearer than ever before.