Study aims to reduce stigma around mental health

Researchers from SFU and Strength In Unity BC are “looking for a few good men” — more specifically, self-identified South, East, and Southeast Asian men, ages 17 and up — to join a conversation about mental health.

Strength In Unity’s nation-wide study, funded by the Movember Foundation, will evaluate the effectiveness of two different workshops in reducing the stigma around mental health in Asian men. This intervention study is the first of its kind in Canada.

Cindy Jiang and Peter Hoong, workshop facilitators and SFU masters of public health students, said this demographic has a strong need for dialogue around mental health. People from immigrant backgrounds seek out mental health services at a much lower rate than others, and these services often lack cultural understanding.

“There’s this odd, perhaps curious interpretation of suffering or enduring silently, and repurposing that as strength,” said Hoong, “so that in itself can also be stigmatizing.”

Rodrick Lal, professor of education at SFU and the study’s co-investigator, said this “double stigma” is often the result of traditional family dynamics that both celebrate and isolate male children. Lal said men in all societies face pressure to act as the main breadwinner and maintain their family’s reputation.

While Lal recognized that this stigma is universal, he noted that it affects certain communities differently than others. Due to a variety of factors, Asian men are often left out of the dialogue around mental health.

The two workshops being tested, Contact-based Empowerment Education (CEE) and Acceptance Commitment Training (ACT), take different approaches to mental health.

CEE focuses on connecting people with their fellow participants and the community at large in order to become mental health leaders. ACT is more geared towards introspection, giving participants the tools to tackle self-stigma.

Lal said community outreach will also involve training religious leaders. He hopes that working within existing cultural systems will encourage men to seek help.

The study is occurring simultaneously in Vancouver, Calgary, and Toronto. All three sites are currently seeking participants for the workshops which, Jiang said, are highly interactive. However, the workshops are not therapy or treatment for mental illness.

After information sessions at SFU’s Burnaby and Surrey campuses, Jiang said students’ reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.

“SFU students have been very much engaged and interested in mental health [. . .] so I think [they] should be proud of themselves for that,” said Jiang.

Jiang, Hoong and Lal hope this study will promote greater dialogue, break down cultural boundaries, and, as Lal put it, “mobilize boys and men to become champions or community mental health ambassadors to address stigma in their cultural communities.”