To the outside observer, everything was going fine in the life of CFL all-star Shea Emry.
It was 2011, and the Montreal Alouettes linebacker — now with the Saskatchewan Roughriders — was hoping to lead his team to a third-straight Grey Cup title.
But then a concussion sidelined him for the season.
For the first time, the pro-football veteran was forced to deal with his depression head on.
Through exploring his own mental health, Emry came to understand part of the bigger problem — an epidemic of silence caused by society's rigid concepts of masculinity.
"When you have a demographic of men who have been conditioned to not show weakness and hold their emotions inside, there's a lot of stuff going on there," Emry said.
"Those thoughts manifest themselves in people's lives in all different shapes and forms, and most of them are not positive forms. They're substance abuse, aggression, depression, people acting out physically, violence against women.
"The social conditioning around that can really lead to a toxic lifestyle, and the silence has reached epidemic proportions."
It was out of Emry's personal struggles that The Wellmen Project was born.
"I forced myself to suffer in silence because of the concept of masculinity that we all bought into as kids," Emry said.
"I just kind of held everything in and when I explored it I needed to find something that would help me get through all of that, and that's where Wellmen comes in."
The Wellmen Project is designed to open men up to "evolutionary dialogue" and conversations they would previously have been too vulnerable to have, Emry said.
Its programs are designed to push men to their limits physically, emotionally and spiritually.
"How we do that is it usually starts with a yoga class, and the yoga opens up their hearts and their minds to the possibility of changing and really developing and becoming a better man," Emry said.
"Then we take them through a process that includes anything that lends to a very visceral, hyper-masculine experience."
The program also incorporates other aspects of what it takes to be a man in the modern age, such as cooking, meditation or craftsmanship.
Though the project is only in its second year, Emry said the feedback to this point has inspired him to keep going.
"There are so many guys out there that don't know that they need a conversation like this," he said. "They just haven't been primed for the opportunity to have one, or seen a man or group of men who have been open enough to have one."
It's those conversations that form the backbone of Emry's message — silence is toxic.
"Don't let it get to the point where you are holding everything inside until you burst. Practice having the difficult conversations, and really lean into that discomfort," he said.
"Really allow those emotions and those feelings to be expressed on a daily basis, because when you practice living that way it doesn't get to the point where you feel like acting out physically and aggressively against the people that you don't want to."
In an ideal world The Wellmen Project wouldn't be necessary, Emry said, but moving forward he hopes it will be a game changer for men's mental health.
"What we see Wellmen becoming is a community of men that can rely on one another for support and to really hold each other accountable for the outdated perception of masculinity, and really set a trend for a new perception," he said.
"A trend that enables men to find strength in that vulnerability and really permits them to be vulnerable and express themselves."
Emry will be speaking at a screening of the film The Mask You Live In on Wednesday, May 20, at Whistler Secondary School starting at 7 p.m.
The film follows boys and young men while they navigate today's narrow definition of masculinity.
Designed to spark conversation, the film features interviews with experts in neuroscience, psychology, sociology, sports, education, the media and the young men and boys themselves.
The evening will be moderated by Kirby Brown and conclude with a question and answer period with Emry and counsellor Greg McDonnell from McDonnell Counselling.
Tickets for the screening are $8 and are available at the door or online at www.eventbrite.com.
For more information about The Wellmen Project visit www.wellmen.org.
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