Helping Men Deal with the Emotional Impact of Heart Disease

November 26, 2016
Group of men talking

Men and women tend to deal with life changing circumstances differently. Heart disease is no exception, and the issues men experience often are not specifically addressed.

“Cultural expectations are that men shouldn’t show any emotions because that’s somehow perceived as weak,” said Heather Tulloch, PhD, a psychologist with Cardiac Prevention and Rehabilitation at the Ottawa Heart Institute. “As a result, many don’t reach out for help or get services when they need them.”

Dr. Tulloch is helping to develop a new program called Mind the Heart. Funded by the men’s health Movember campaign, the program is geared toward mental health issues that men encounter as a consequence of heart disease. Indeed, close to half of people who have a heart attack will experience some symptoms of depression, about 20% have anxiety and a quarter have symptoms of post traumatic stress (PTSD).

“Now, we’re really going to focus on that group. We’re going to help them by addressing emotional needs in a way that appeals to men,” she explained.

The Heart Institute will be one of six centres in Canada testing the program. While the Institute already has programs for both men and women, Mind the Heart will be integrated with those targeting men. A total of 3,000 individuals will be enrolled and offered a series of assessments and tools to help them through emotional health issues related to their heart disease, said Paul Greenman, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Montfort Hospital Research Institute in Ottawa, professor at the Université du Québec en Outaouais in Gatineau, Quebec and one of the principal investigators of the project.

Heather Tulloch
Heather Tulloch, PhD, psychologist

Support will be provided in a “stepped” fashion, with increasing levels of help offered over time depending on the severity of a participant’s psychological issues.

Men who are found to be suffering from depression, anxiety or PTSD will first be offered information and online tools designed to help them understand and manage problems such as sadness, anxiety and worry. For many, this will be all they need, said Dr. Greenman.

After three months, participants will be reassessed, and those who need further support will be offered eight group therapy sessions of two hours each. After another three months, men who need additional help will be offered either 15 traditional individual cognitive behavioural therapy sessions or 15 sessions of counselling that include their spouse or another person they are close to.

These couples’ sessions are important for people whose home relationships become stressful because of their heart disease.

“Often we hear patients say ‘Ever since my heart attack, my wife has been nagging me or there are arguments and conflicts.’ This part of the program is to help people realize what’s going on. Mostly it has to do with concern or fear, but often doesn’t come out that way. Couples are offered tools to understand the patterns in relationships. We want to help men realize there are important links between their mental health, their physical health and what’s going on in their relationships,” Dr. Greenman explained.

Mind the Heart will compliment other Heart Institute psychosocial services offered through Cardiac Rehabilitation, such as the Stress Management program, the Managing Emotions group, the Healing Hearts Together couples group, the Women @ Heart program and the Heart Healthy Sleep group.

Connect with Mind the Heart through the program’s Facebook page. The therapy portion of the program is expected to launch at the Heart Institute in the spring of 2017.