Nova Scotia offers pioneering helpline exclusively for men

Halifax, NS –

Nova Scotia has set up what is believed to be Canada’s first 24-hour helpline exclusively for men in response to an urgent need that has arisen with the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Soon after the county closed in March 2020, officials noticed an increasing number of men calling the county’s 211 service, which provides information about government and community services.

Providers were saying, ‘There’s something going on here,’ says Nancy MacDonald, executive director of Family Service in Eastern Nova Scotia.

It soon became apparent that more men were actively seeking help as they struggled with job losses, broken relationships, loneliness, anger, stress and additional anxiety caused by the pandemic.

“We’ve all heard the same thing: men are weak, men get hurt, men are socially isolated, and men are greatly affected by job losses and the shutdown of informal social networks,” MacDonald says.

The Nova Scotia Advisory Board on the Status of Women and the District’s Department of Community Services decided to take action based in part on the idea that helping men facing a potential crisis could lead to a reduction in domestic violence. They turn to McDonald’s for help because her nonprofit offers advice and a wide range of programs — and she has plenty of experience with 24-hour helplines.

The new men’s helpline was set up in September 2020 without much fanfare. Over the next 12 months, the free Secret Service handled 1,600 calls from men across the county — a large number for a county of less than a million people. By mid-November, that number had jumped to nearly 2,200.

The line is intended for adult men or those considered male. When they call 211, they are referred to a helpline if they have concerns about their own safety, or the safety of others. Those who find themselves facing a crisis will also get help depending on the type of ordeal.

“There is a certain degree of crisis that our social workers are very skilled with, and there is a degree of crisis outside of us,” MacDonald says.

One of the program’s goals is to prevent domestic violence by providing men with easy access to risk management and intervention. MacDonald says the line has proven very successful, and there has been talk of expanding access to other counties.

“The goal is to create an open space for men to feel heard and restore their emotional balance,” MacDonald says.

A helpline is a good idea because men are often reluctant to seek any kind of help, says Dr. Michael Young, MD, medical director of Sheppard Pratt Psychiatric Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.

“Men tend to view depression and anxiety as a sign of weakness,” he said in an interview. “During the pandemic, isolation, feelings of stress and depression have increased dramatically. We have received more referrals to our programs than ever before.”

The economic disruption caused by the pandemic has also led to widespread job losses, taking a heavy toll on men and their families.

“Most men associate their financial well-being with their ability to provide for their families,” says Young, who specializes in treating mood, anxiety, and personality disorders. “It’s where they derive a large part of their self-esteem.”

Meanwhile, frequent shutdowns and ever-changing health protection measures have eliminated men’s social contact in the workplace. Most men weren’t ready to work from home, says Dr. Simon Sherry, a professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

“Men have smaller circles, in terms of their social networks, and their networks often have connections to the physical workplace,” says Sherry, a psychologist who studies the role of personality in relationship problems, depression, anxiety, and alcohol problems. “Women have wider social circles and are usually better represented in cyberspace.”

Sherry adds that while there is strong evidence to suggest a national helpline for men is needed, it would be wrong to conclude that men struggle more than women.

“There is no evidence of a man. Amidst this pandemic, everyone is suffering, and men and women sometimes suffer in different ways.”

Sherry says the closures have been particularly difficult for women because they are left with more household chores related to providing care, exacerbating inequality before the pandemic. Also, women remain over-represented in the hardest-hit retail and healthcare sectors.

However, it is clear that men are less likely to seek help for mental or physical problems, which leads to more serious and complex forms of the disease. Keith Anderson, a Nova Scotia attorney who has struggled with depression for years, says he sees the need for the new helpline.

“I’ve been there, and I know the challenges one can face,” says Anderson, a mental health advocate and peer support team leader at the Canadian Mental Health Association in Cape Breton.

“If the men got together and talked, they wouldn’t go down a mental health continuum to get to the point of needing a therapist or psychologist or contemplating suicide.”

He sees a 24-hour service as key to suicide prevention.

“At three in the morning, you start thinking about suicide,” Anderson says. “I was there. I had planned it. But I wouldn’t do it for my family.”

Men taken to the helpline can spend up to 30 minutes talking to the responder, and there is no limit to the number of times they can be called. The service is offered in more than 200 languages, and there is an option for separate and short-term counseling sessions for free.

An assessment of the helpline released in July found that the largest group of callers needed help dealing with stress and anxiety associated with losing a job or waiting for mental health services. Other callers spoke of feelings of loneliness and sadness that they said were exacerbated by the pandemic. And there have been calls from men wanting immediate help dealing with the loss of a relationship or anger, conflict and violence within a relationship.

Says the assessment, conducted by the Center for Research and Education on Violence against Women at Western University in London, Ontario, and Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

About a third of the unique callers were referred to short-term counseling. However, more men repeatedly called for on-demand one-on-one half-hour sessions.

“Sometimes callers felt that they “got what they needed” through one-on-one sessions and valued the (helpline) as an accessible service they could use to talk to a counselor right away, rather than being put on a queue for “services,” the study says.

This report was first published by The Canadian Press on November 29, 2021.

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