Vancouver artist Foster Eastman gives men a second chance

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Two years ago, Foster Eastman lost a close friend to suicide. The Vancouver multimedia artist remembers feeling very angry over the loss. And like many who cherished the deceased, he’s still asking why it had to end that way.

“I was at his funeral and there was so much love and support there, and I just couldn’t believe how someone could not know that,” Eastman recalled in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight. “How can you take your own life?”

His friend had plenty of money and could have had all the help he needed to get better. The death taught Eastman some things.

“It’s helped me understand the various levels of depression and try to understand that even wealthy people, people with access to resources and access to health [services], they commit suicide too, and I have a hard time with that,” Eastman said.

Eastman continues to learn, largely through his collaborative art endeavours. One is called Man-Up Against Suicide, a project of the UBC-based Masculinities and Men’s Depression and Suicide Network.

Funded by Movember Canada, a nonprofit devoted to men’s health, Man-Up Against Suicide is a photo and art exhibit opening on May 28 at 1445 West Georgia Street, the former Buschlen Mowatt Gallery. The display aims to raise awareness of male suicide.

The suicide rate for men is three times that for women, according to a report released by Statistics Canada in July 2012. In Suicide Rates: An Overview, author Tanya Navaneelan of the federal agency’s health-statistics division noted that the higher rate of male suicides has been the norm during the past 60 years.

“Depression is the most common illness among those who die from suicide, with approximately 60 percent suffering from this condition,” Navaneelan wrote. “No single determinant, including mental illness, is enough on its own to cause a suicide. Rather, suicide typically results from the interaction of many factors, for example: mental illness, marital breakdown, financial hardship, deteriorating physical health, a major loss, or a lack of social support.”

Although men are more likely to die from suicide, Navaneelan pointed out that women are three to four times more likely to attempt killing themselves. She stated that the disparity may be due to the fact that women tend to use less lethal methods.

In 2011, 3,728 people in Canada died through suicide. Seventy-five percent of them were men, according to the latest figures from the statistics agency.

Christina Han, manager of the Man-Up Against Suicide project, pointed to a gender paradox. She noted that although depression rates are higher among women, suicide rates are higher among men.

The UBC interdisciplinary graduate student explained that many men don’t seek help because society expects them to be strong and stoic in the face of suffering.

“Men are so reluctant to talk about their emotions and their weaknesses,” Han told the Straight in a phone interview.

In the Man-Up Against Suicide project, Eastman is also working with John Oliffe, a professor at the UBC school of nursing and a principal investigator of the Masculinities and Men’s Depression and Suicide Network.

Oliffe was introduced to Eastman by his co-investigator at the network, Marvin Westwood, a UBC professor of counselling psychology. Westwood was also a founder of a group-based therapy program to help former and current members of the Canadian military deal with mental traumas.

The program developed into a not-for-profit organization, the Veterans Transition Network, the beneficiary of the Lest We Forget CANADA! exhibit that was recently put together under Eastman’s supervision.

“It’s interesting how things evolve,” Eastman said about how that show, which opened on April 18 at the former Buschlen Mowatt Gallery, led to his involvement in the Man-Up Against Suicide project.

The centrepiece of the Lest We Forget CANADA! exhibit was a mural composed of 162 panels, each representing a Canadian who died in Afghanistan.

The mural will be displayed at a private breakfast event for families of the fallen on Friday (May 9) in Ottawa, part of the National Day of Honour declared by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to commemorate the more than 40,000 men and women who went to Afghanistan. Eastman will be at the breakfast being organized by the True Patriot Love group.

According to Eastman, more than 400 current and former soldiers have gone through the Veterans Transition Network program, and none of them has committed suicide.

Dale Hamilton, a veteran of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan, was one of the participants in the program. The 28-year-old is working on his international-studies degree.

Before going through the therapy, the B.C. man recalls that he was in a “downward spiral”.

“I hadn’t dealt with any of my grief,” Hamilton said in a phone interview with the Straight. “I had lost a lot of friends and just hadn’t processed it.”

Hamilton and other veterans and family members worked with Eastman in preparing the 162 panels used in the Lest We Forget CANADA! mural. The former soldier knew eight of the dead.

In 2013, the Canadian Forces lost nine members to suicide, according to information provided to the Straight by public-affairs officer Capt. Isaac Donnelly. He also indicated that there have been four deaths so far this year that have been reported in the media as suicides but not yet officially confirmed as such.

In March 2013, Canada’s Directorate of Force Health Protection issued a report noting that there was “no statistically significant change” in male suicide rates in the Canadian military from 1995 to 2012.

“The rate of suicide when standardized for age and sex is lower than that of the general Canadian population,” the report stated.

As in the Lest We Forget CANADA! project, collaboration is a major feature in Man-Up Against Suicide.

Twenty-five participants will exhibit photos about how suicide has touched their lives. Eastman is working with 10 of them to make art pieces using the snapshots they’ve taken.

“It’s probably good counselling for me to work with participants in creating artwork,” Eastman said.

As for what he has learned from the two projects, Eastman said that there is a message that needs to be heard by those thinking about ending their lives: “Let’s talk about it.”

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