This July, William Affleck, a new postdoctoral fellow will be joining the MHR team. During his fellowship, William will be stationed in the Canadian Arctic, and will work in partnership with community organizations to better understand why Inuit boys and young men are at greater risk for suicide.
To mark the beginning of his fellowship, I asked William to do a short Q&A to find out more about his life and his research:
ER: Tell me a little bit about your academic background?
WA: I’ve had an unlikely path to research. When I was younger I was a terrible student, and a bit of a troubled youth. I was expelled from high school once and dropped out 5 different times before I eventually finished in my early twenties. From there I was accepted to a university on the East Coast through a mature student program. I spent two years there studying History and English, but it wasn’t a great experience. I continued to be a solid “D” student, and was put on academic probation after my first semester. To make a long story short, in my third year I somehow convinced Concordia University to take me on as a transfer student. Perhaps it was because I was a bit older, or because I knew nobody in Montreal and lived by myself in the suburbs, but when I got there things started to turn around. I remember very clearly when I got my first “A”. As a high school dropout it was such a rush, and it was addictive. When I graduated a few years later I was at the top of my class.
ER: That’s really interesting! So from there, what led you to complete a masters and start a PhD?
WA: I come from a small Ontario community and all of my friends are in the trades. There isn’t a lot of appreciation for academics, at least not amongst my friend group. Even though I enjoyed my studies, I always felt that academics were somehow delicate or self-indulgent, I never saw it as a career path. So, after my BA I spent the next several years becoming a stone mason. I enjoyed the physical work and the job-site camaraderie, but looking back this plan was never going to work out. The trades require a hands-on practicality and I simply don’t have. The turning point came while I was working in a small town in British Columbia, and I heard a CBC radio program about medical ethics. The woman giving the lecture was a professor at McGill. I wrote her a letter and soon after was accepted into a Master’s program in Biomedical Ethics. This program introduced me to medical research and led to a PhD in social psychiatry. The rest is history.
ER: Your current project is looking at the connections between masculinities and Inuit male youth experiences of mental illness and suicidality - what sparked your interest to do research in this field?
WA: My MA thesis involved an empirical study examining the psycho-social experiences of bereaved fathers. It was during this project that I came to realize how under-represented men are in mental health literature broadly, but especially in traumatic stress research. I also began to appreciate how unique men’s mental health experience is, both in terms of causes and expression, and how little is actually understood about it. I was able to delve further into these issues during my PhD, which examined the psychological impact of war and displacement on civilian men in Northern Sri Lanka. During my PhD I also had the chance to work with a psychiatrist colleague of mine from U of T who works on issues of Inuit mental health and suicide. The project explored the experience of male survivors of sexual abuse and took me to six different communities throughout Nunavut. It was through talking with local people that I learned about the troubles facing young men. Not many Canadians realize this, but 85% of suicides in the Canadian Arctic are Inuit boys and young men between 12 and 25 years of age. In fact, young Inuit males are more likely to suicide than any other population in the world. Community members I spoke to were struggling because they did not know how to help young men, and young men were not showing up to mental health services.
ER: So you are starting your Postdoctoral project with MHR this month - can you tell me a little bit about the type of research you will be doing?
WA: Sure. My current research, which is being conducted in partnership with several Inuit organizations, will examine broadly 1) why are Inuit boys and young men at such a high risk of suicide? and 2) what can be done to attract (and retain) them to mental health services. I will be based in Iqaluit, but will be conducting research in a number of smaller communities throughout Nunavut and Nunavik (Northern Quebec). Men, particularly young men, are a very challenging population to research, especially about personal issues such as emotions and psychology. I will be using photographic methods, which can be really valuable in working with men because they re-direct the focus away from the individual. For example, in Photo Elicitation, one of the research methods we will be using in this study, the participant is asked to take photos that represent their experience. Then, during the interviews, the researcher can ask about the photo, why the participant took it, and what aspect of their experience it represents. These methods can lead to really deep and meaningful conversations. They can also be helpful for individuals suffering with mental health issues, as it allows them to creatively tell their story and work through some of their emotions. They (photo-based methods) are also really helpful in terms of knowledge translation. Pictures have a great emotive quality that helps the audience connect with the participant’s experience in a way that words on paper, especially scientific and “academic-y” words, cannot.
ER: And from there, where would you like this research to go? What do you hope can come from it?
WA: These are big questions. I suppose like all health/medical researchers, in the long term I would like my work to inform policy and clinical interventions. More immediately, I would like the findings of this project to be used to help my partnering organizations- and Inuit communities more broadly- to establish mental health programs for Inuit boys and young men. I’m very lucky that my research has the potential to make such a real, on the ground impact. Not many researchers can say this.
ER: That is very true. So, now we are going to switch gears a bit. Tell me, what are some of your passions outside of research?
WA: I have pretty eclectic tastes. I love to play guitar. I love to camp and spend time outdoors. I also love the visual arts. I had a really creative upbringing. My Dad was a sculptor and my Mom is a painter. Growing up, all of our family friends were artists. Though I didn’t inherit the artistic gene, I have a real appreciation. I’m excited to learn more about Inuit art, especially Inuit sculpture when I’m living up in Iqaluit.
ER: And one fun fact about yourself?
WA: I love to eat, but I absolutely hate to cook.
ER: We have similar tastes! And in finishing up, is there anything else you would like to add about yourself, or your research?
WA: I’m super excited to be working at UBC with the Men’s Health Network. I’ve looked up to the researchers here for many years… I kind of feel like a rookie in the major leagues. I’m also really honoured to have such dedicated and thoughtful community partners up North. I only hope that I can earn the trust that they’ve placed in me.
William will be working with MHR for the duration of his postdoctoral fellowship. You can read more about William in the About section of our website!