Since entering the world of Canadian professional football more than seven years ago, Shea Emry has made a name for himself. The all-star middle linebacker’s long list of athletic achievements includes two Grey Cup wins, as well as being elected seventh in the 2008 CFL draw by the Montreal Alouettes.
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Emry’s impressive career, however, didn’t come without its challenges — challenges he now talks about in public.
“I have suffered from severe depression throughout my life, and for a long time I didn’t feel comfortable talking about it with my friends, parents, my team, ” Emry says. “On the field you’re told to ‘man up’, not to talk about your feelings.”
A victim of bullying, his depression started when he was growing up in B.C and flared up again four years ago after suffering a concussion at a game that forced him to miss the second half of the season.
The support of his family, yoga and the outdoors helped him to get through this rough patch of his life, Emry says, and finally tackle his illness to become “the man I want to be”.
These days, Emry is sharing his learnings and insights with the world through the Wellmen Project. Launched in early 2014, the program aims to empower men to foster their own mental wellness through workshops and conversations.
“The Wellmen Project is a vehicle to redefine and evolve the concept of masculinity,” he says. “And it’s about really getting back to learning who we are through openness.”
Adventures And Meaningful Conversations
The young man in the blue jacket lifts the axe high over his head and hurls it with all this might at the wooden target 50 feet away from him. The axe hits the right corner of the target and the small crowd of men standing behind him erupts into cheers.
Throwing axes is probably the most spectacular event offered at Wellmen workshops, but by far not the only activity participants can engage in.
“We like to switch it up,” says Emry.
Workshops always include yoga, going on an adventure together — from ziplining to mountain biking or axe throwing — and most importantly, group conversations to give participants a chance to talk about life goals and challenges, as well as mental well-being.
In the future, Emry says, workshops will allow for learning a new skill to build confidence — including “as female-perceived” skills such as cooking or sewing.
He also has plans to grow the Wellmen Project across Canada by recruiting ambassadors who hold their own workshops to start conversations around mental health and what defines manliness all over the country.
“There’s definitely growing awareness. A little while ago, we showed a video about Wellmen at a Giants game. After that, the video got over 38,000 online views and donations started to come in from people I hadn’t even met before. It’s great to see so much support for this project and this really important cause.”
Creating A New Community Of Men
Having grown up on training fields and in sports arenas, for the longest time “manliness” was defined as raw physicality and being tough for Emry. In this context, discussing feelings or talking about “weaknesses” like his struggle with mental illness, seemed taboo.
The Wellmen Project, he says, opens up a dialogue to challenge and redefine belief systems around masculinity.
“If we want to resolve societal issues like domestic violence or alcoholism, we need to create a community of men that is open to emotional conversations. We have to realize that there isn’t a specific framework of what a man is. It’s an evolving concept and it’s on us to redefine what it really means to be a man.”
If you want to inspire the next generation of men to be mentally well, please make a small donation to the Wellmen Project's Giving Group.