| By Ryan Durgy |
New Years, for most, is about goals, celebrating the past year and the new year to come, alcohol, and fireworks. However, the goals David Cameron-Arthurs had in January 2014 involved actively planning his suicide and the fireworks he was experiencing came from within.
David has experienced many successes in his life. This 25-year-old is not only an entrepreneur and athlete, but also a self-starter who recently founded an organization for LGBTQ athletes called Knock-OUT and spoke at the Canadian Mental Health Association’s World Suicide Prevention Day.
Beneath all of these accomplishments, however, he has faced a constant struggle. All of these successes come after years of struggles to exist in a constant battle with mental health issues that David faces on a daily basis. David is among the thousands of gay men who suffer from mental health issues.
David has several mental health issues and has been primarily dealing with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and depression his entire life. His report cards would always say that he was very intelligent but that he would “misbehave”. David would finish his homework and go around and talk to the other kids. His depression began in grade five because he was being bullied, a lot of it to do with his sexuality.
“I had a hard time making friends with a lot of people, who couldn’t really understand that I could be interested in both football and ballet or that I liked the Spice Girls but also played on all these sports teams. The majority of the bullying came from my teammates and classmates.“
Men are four times as likely to die by suicide, however, they are only half as likely as women to be diagnosed with depression. These statistics are alarming but for gay men the prognosis is worse.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, as youth, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans (LGBT) people are 14 times more at risk for suicide and substance abuse. These issues continue into adulthood for many LGBT people, with higher rates of depression, anxiety, suicide, self-harm, and substance abuse than the general population.
While David is more than a statistic, his struggles with coming to terms with his sexuality while simultaneously dealing with mental health issues escalated in elementary school when he says the depression was strong and he began self harming. David would use humour in an attempt to deflect the attention away from his struggles.
“They seemed to forget to tease me when I was being funny. It was hard for the teachers, you know, for the guy that’s not necessarily the most behaved to suddenly be coming to them crying saying that I was bullied, they were kind of like ‘yeah right’. So I didn’t get that much support there.”
Mark Henick, who is a Canadian mental health advocate, TEDXToronto speaker, and a manager at the Canadian Mental Health Association, says that men’s reluctance to talk about their mental health struggles is extremely harmful:
“One of the reasons men don’t seek help is because of this standard of masculinity that somehow it makes them weak or somehow it’s a moral or character failing, and that’s just not acceptable. [Talking about how you’re feeling] is not a blemish on your character, and in fact it makes you much stronger.”
Luckily for David, his family had been supportive of him and he had been seeing therapists from a young age. By grade 10, David had come out as gay and by the end of high school he felt that he was doing better than ever, more comfortable with himself and in his first serious relationship.
“The very first time I got my boyfriend, I finally felt validated or accepted…. cared about or special…. so when that relationship ended it put me in a position where I was like ‘oh I guess I was wrong and this was just a fluke’ because he broke up with me.”
Deborah Mandell, who is a Counsellor at Humber College and Co-facilitator of an LGBTQ Discussion group at the college, talked about the self-esteem issues that gay men like David face from a young age.
“An additional issue that I see with gay men–-whether or not straight men also experience this but they just don’t talk about it as much–-is around self esteem. I think it can be a big issue because coming out is a really hard thing to do and it takes a lot of courage and bravery. We do live in a homophobic culture, so it can be really hard. Generally adolescents and young adults tend to struggle with low self-esteem, so it can be that much harder if you’re gay”
Shortly after the break up, David began to feel worthless and insecure. He was having difficulty coping with the end of his relationship and started thinking of suicide. Subsequently, David was hospitalized for five days after actively planning his suicide. He began seeing a psychotherapist and his quality of life started getting better when he began treatment for his ADHD. His depression was not treated until a few months later when he was put on Prozac to help cope with his mental health issues while dealing with the pressures of university.
He said that taking Prozac throughout university, and up until last year, seemed to be quite helpful. Everything seemed to be looking up for David. He had been in a relationship that had been going well, successfully graduated, maintained a full time job, and was playing sports on a regular basis. He was finally happy and decided to approach his doctor and ask to be taken off the Prozac because he felt like he didn’t need it anymore.
“That was a big mistake. When I came off the medication, I came off it cold turkey. It was a really bad time of year to really trial and error it. I came off it during the summer. For the first two months, it was fine and I was really happy and things were good.”
“After [that] I started getting down again and not doing so well. That was right around time when fall started and my doctor attributed it to the weather and stress,” David said.
David said that he believes he started to feel down again not because of the weather but rather because, at that point, his antidepressants had left his body. In addition to that, he was working full time at an insurance company and was having multiple panic attacks every day.
“Work was really, really suffering. I hated my job. Hated it. Wasn’t fulfilling. I didn’t feel appreciated. It was just bad. On top of that, the anxiety was happening. Every day at work was just a struggle.”
Michael Hazelton, a counsellor with David Kelley LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS Counselling Services at Family Service Toronto, says that gay men like David do still face struggles in the work place. He jokes that gay men have become an asset to every work place, however, places emphasis that subtle homophobia can still exist in the workplace including exclusion of gay men from certain workplace activities.
Feeling unfulfilled with work and with life, on top of battling with depression, on December 13th, 2013 David decided that he had to go to the hospital because he was scared that he was going to attempt, for the second time, to kill himself.
He went on disability from work and tried going back to work after three weeks. That wasn’t a good idea, he said.
“The coworkers resented me because they had to do my work. The supervisor resented me because our office was getting behind. The guilt just piled up and up and that made it even worse and harder to recover. And my self esteem was even lower because I felt worthless and I couldn’t get over my mental illness and get back to work and contribute.”
He says that he was seeing multiple doctors and being given multiple medications. After New Years he started actively planning his suicide.
A full month later and fresh into the new year things worsened for David. He said he wasn’t eating or sleeping and made an attempt on his life.
David spent six weeks at Victoria Hospital in London, Ontario and spent five of those six weeks in the psychiatry unit. Discharged in February 2014, David was still on disability and was a part of an outpatient program. He left his insurance company job and got a new job at Supreme Courts Volleyball facilities, helping out with their volleyball program. He says that the job started out as temporary while he figured out what he wanted to do.
“You go from thinking you’re not going to be alive one day, to suddenly being alive and having to make decisions,” David said.
When David started the Supreme Courts Volleyball job, shortly after his hospitalization, he told his workplace about his recovery and was allowed to make his own hours. Soon enough, though, he began to work set hours which he says was harming his mental health.
David’s new job was symbolic of his inner struggles; he was “watching people have fun all night” while isolated behind a window beyond the courts. Luckily, he is the only employee at the volleyball courts and his managers are very supportive towards his recovery.
“I don’t see the traditional job, the workplace, as being suitable for someone who, like me, is dealing with so many issues. The expectations of any employer is not unreasonable to want your employees to be dependable and to be able to rely on them to show up on time for their shifts on a regular basis.”
David always felt very supported from the people closest to him and said that he doesn’t think his gender identity affected how people treated him. However, he wondered whether this is because he is an openly gay male and may be considered an exception to the rule regarding men and expression of their emotions.
“People expect [gay men] to be hyper-emotive, whether it’s super happy or super depressed,” David said.
A recent study by Michael E. Addis, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Clark University and research expert with men’s mental health, suggests that gender roles influence our responses to, and displays of, emotional distress. Therefore, the masculinity norms that men are expected to meet leave them avoiding showing their negative emotions, which can have detrimental effects for men suffering from mental illness.
Gay men, however, are often not held to the same standards of masculinity as heterosexual men are.
“One of the taunts for gay male kids is often you’re too sensitive and as adults we get that too… Not every gay man is highly sensitive, although, I think overall, for a number of reasons, we probably do end up being more emotionally expressive,” Hazelton said.
This acceptance of gay men’s expression of emotions may, therefore, positively impact their mental health and may help them receive help for their struggles earlier than heterosexual men.
David said his brother, who identifies as straight, had a difficult time dealing with David’s mental health––not because he wasn’t supportive but rather because he was “uncomfortable talking about his feelings”.
Hazelton also said this may have to do with some heterosexual men’s reluctance to talk about their mental health struggles with others, “There are gay men who do this too, but there are a lot of straight men [where] the extent of the conversation is going to be a grunt,” he said.
Hazelton agreed that while within certain groups of gay men there are higher substance abuse and higher rates of depression. However, he said, there are also studies that show gay men have high levels of resilience because of the adversity they have dealt with in their lives while developing ways to cope with issues surrounding their sexuality. The new generation, he said, understands critical thought and hasn’t forgotten the history of homophobia and that such awareness can potentially positively contribute to gay men’s mental health.
Hazelton has some advice for the friends, family, and allies when talking to their significant others “Be available to the person…You don’t have to nor can you fix it for somebody. A lot of times people just need to have someone understand what they’re going through. Being a decent listener is really important.”
He said he advises gay men who come to him for counseling to be selective in those they go to for help:
“Pick who they trust, who are probably not going to just fix it for them, who can listen…. A lot of times people will just talk to anyone, and there are people who are in total denial or they have this belief ‘well you’re depressed just pull up your socks and get on with it’. Now you’re now blaming the person for something you have no understanding of.”
Hazelton noted the importance of needing someone to understand you rather than judge you.
“The worst friend to talk to about a problem is the one who comes up with the immediate solution.”
He said that this sort of decision could reinforce a person’s feeling of helplessness because they may feel reliant on other people’s decisions rather than working on what they really need to get better.
By using the coping skills he has learned, surrounding himself with supportive people, and making sure to make his mental health a priority, David has made continuous steps towards securing his wellness.
“I do everything I can to not end up back in that hospital and I don’t want to go back ever. I’m going to do whatever it takes, every time, to take care of myself. ”
When he was discharged from the hospital he was in a program called Track to Wellness that he went to twice a week for two hours for group and occupational therapy. He learned and practiced coping skills. He said that the program prepared people to go back into the workforce, which helps him when he begins to feel overwhelmed. He started Knock-OUT last June as a way to build positives in his life and deal with his mental health issues.
He said that he doesn’t yet find that life is easier running his own organization and suggests this is because he is still in the workforce. David recently graduated from a program by Rise Asset Development, associated with the Rotman School of Management out of the University of Toronto and the Ivey Business School at Western University, which is designed specifically for people who are starting a small business and have dealt with mental health challenges.
Gay men dealing with mental health issues have the ability to show their resilience by moving beyond their oppression and stigmas while being successful in different assets of life; David is an example of this. David believes that change is driven by our desires to rid ourselves of the things that sadden us.
In fact, his tattoo reads, “Be the change”, which he says means to remember do something about the things that make you unhappy.
“I don’t like when people accept the things that make them unhappy,” he said.
While his future is looking bright, his goals seemed to be dimmed by the reality that his mental health is something he will be constantly monitoring and addressing for years to come.
“In five years from now, I hope to be living neutral so that when I’m happy I can appreciate it more. I would love to be not so extreme. Not either really low or super happy, I would love to just live. That’d be lovely,” David remarked with a smile.