Documentary explores mental health of oil and gas industry's commuter workforce

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A new documentary exploring men’s mental health in the oil industry takes a look at the toll that long hours and isolation can have on workers.

Digging in the Dirt is a documentary examining men’s mental health in the oil and gas industry, featuring workers who have struggled with addiction and depression.

The documentary touches on the isolation and loneliness experienced by men living in the industry’s work camps near Fort McMurray and Grande Prairie. Frequent themes are the lengthy stays away from families and friends, and a lack of recreation opportunities and support services.

The documentary aired on CBC and is now available online.

Filmmaker Dylan Rhys Howard said he first became interested in the project after reading a 2017 Buzzfeed article on the topic written by Omar Mouallem, who grew up in Slave Lake and is co-producer of the documentary.

“It’s very hard for men to talk about their feelings and when they have a situation like their marriage breaks down or something like that, they don’t know what to do with that information,” said Howard, who grew up in Edmonton. “They don’t know how to handle it, how to process it, so they are at a great risk to just isolate, drink more.”

Howard said the documentary tries to look beyond the stereotypes that people with few, if any, connections to the oil and gas industry may have about the people who work in places like Fort McMurray.

“That idea of a young person with a jacked-up pick-up truck and a coke habit. Treating them in this stereotypical and disparaging way, we want to go beyond that,” he said. “When we approach people who are different from us with a sense of curiosity and respect instead of being afraid, I think that’s a huge part of this.”


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While making the film, Howard said he was surprised to find that mental health is something people are beginning to talk about, especially from men in their 40s and older.

“As we are starting to get increased visibility and awareness about mental health in a broader sense culturally, these men are taking the opportunity to talk about what’s been going on with them and use this as a way to engage the younger generation in a conversation about this,” he said.

In 2017, local non-profit Some Other Solutions said that their crisis hotline saw 600 calls in 2015 in the Wood Buffalo area following the collapse of oil prices in 2014. Following the May 2016 wildfire, stress from rebuilding destroyed homes and layoffs in the oilsands and connected industries made the demand even higher.

Other organizations in the Fort McMurray area have continued to say demand for their services has remained relatively constant since the economic downturn and the 2016 wildfires.

Howard said he believes the approach to men’s mental health needs to be peer-to-peer instead of a top-down structure.

“You can paste phone numbers for help lines in every trailer on every job site in the whole province and it’s still going to be very difficult for people to ask for help,” he said.

In Alberta, the Tough Enough to Talk About It program from the Suicide Prevention Resource Centre in Grande Prairie provides presentations and workshops about recognizing problems, self-care tips and how to ask for help.


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They also work with management to promote psychological well being, develop management skills, and how to recognize and respond to employees with mental health concerns.

Although the documentary focuses on the oil and gas industry, Howard said he believes it is reflective of workplaces in general.

“The oil and gas industry is one example, and it’s a focused example of the way that we prioritize work and productivity over our mental and emotional and physical wellbeing,” he said.

“I’m really glad this conversation is starting to happen and I hope that we can create a healthier world. I hope this documentary contributes to a healthier environment for my kids and their kids.”

If you are in trouble, please reach out. There are people who care and want to help you.

Alberta’s 24/7 Mental Health Help Line is 1-877-303-2642. The SOS Crisis Line is 780-743-4357. The Fort McMurray Family Crisis Society’s Emergency Hotline is 780-743-7775. The 24/7 Child Abuse Hotline is 1-800-387-5437.

A full list of mental and emotional health resources can be found here.

With files from Vincent McDermott

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