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Gone Boys: The role of mental health in the story of Vancouver Island's missing men

Last Updated Mar 22, 2021 at 5:47 am PDT

Daniel MacDonnell was a born fisherman. For a time, he owned his own commercial fishing boat while living in Port Alberni. His father, Colin MacDonnell, says fishing was his son’s greatest passion.

“He loved fishing and spent most of the time on the water out on commercial fishing boats,” says Colin.

Daniel’s friends called him Danny or ‘Newfie.’ Daniel didn’t come from Newfoundland though; he had moved to the west coast from his home in Nova Scotia.

He could be sweet as pie one minute and mean as a hornet the next. Daniel is described as both a loyal friend and as someone with a volatile temper.

“Danny was a pretty high-strung person. He had a really good heart but sometimes he got over excited he had a pretty bad temper at times,” Daniel’s father says of the mood swings he observed in his son. “Sometimes he would phone me and be really nasty on the phone. The next time he would phone, and you would think that he was the nicest person on the planet. He had a nasty streak that he would call people some nasty things sometimes when he got in one of those moods. But it would not last long. And it would go away and then he would phone you in a day and be as nice as pie after being not so nice. So, you had really two different sides to them.”

Daniel MacDonnell is pictured on a boat. He is one of the missing men on Vancouver Island whose stories are being told in the Gone Boys podcast series. (Submitted)

Colin believes his son was wrestling with undiagnosed bi-polar disorder and had become involved in drugs when he vanished in December of 2016.

Mental illness is a common thread running through the stories of Vancouver Island’s missing men, as is trauma and addiction.

All of the men whose stories are featured in Gone Boys were struggling with their mental health. Experts interviewed for the series believe the poverty and social exclusion connected with mental illness would make the men easy targets for a serial killer or killers.

True crime podcast series ‘Gone Boys’ aims to draw attention to the missing men of Vancouver Island. Pictured are five of them. (From left to right: Kelly McLeod, Brandon Cairney, Desmond Peter, Ian Henry, and Daniel MacDonnell.)

Colin MacDonnell wishes his son had sought help for his mental illness.

Dr. John Ogrodniczuk is a professor and the director of the UBC Psychotherapy Program. He says men are still stubbornly resistant to seeking help.

“We know from anecdotal experience and also research that men don’t utilize health services nearly to the rate that they should and particularly mental health resources,” Ogrodniczuk says. “Also, what’s clearly recognized is that men have a very high suicide rate, in the range of three to four times higher than women.”

Ogrodniczuk started HeadsUpGuys to help address that problem.

It’s an online resource developed to support men in their journey toward recovery from depression. It is a way to better connect with men around the topic of depression and suicide, and also help them engage with their health a little bit better.

“Clearly what we’re doing, wasn’t working. There’s evidence to indicate that guys will turn to the internet first, when they are looking for health information and self-help strategies when they’re not feeling well,” Ogrodniczuk explains. “So we thought this might be a place where we can meet them and give them a space where it’s clear that this is for men and about men.”

Dr. John Ogrodniczuk (Submitted)

Family members of the missing men have described their sons as men who wanted to be independent and not be a burden.

Ogrodniczuk says there are a variety of factors to be considered when talking about men not seeking help.

“One is masculine socialization: how males are taught to be boys and men. What society says about how males should act and we’ve all heard, ‘Big boys don’t cry, pull your boots, keep a stiff upper lip, don’t show any weakness or vulnerability. You’ve got to do it on your own. Be a sturdy oak, stoic warrior,’ all this kind of stuff. And so, what does that communicate to guys? And it’s like, okay, I need to rely on myself and always put the tough face forward and boys and men are shamed into conformity with this.”

Another factor worth noting in the lives of the missing men is that most come from divorced families. In most cases, the men grew up without their fathers in their daily lives.

“We talk about the importance of having that maternal bond, which is absolutely fundamental. But often what gets lost in the conversation is the role the dads play, and dads play important roles,” Ogrodniczuk says of the significance of father figures.

“Sometimes that male role model is not necessarily the best, but by and large dads are good people too. And dads have an important role to play in helping their children develop a full sense of self and be confident and resilient and feel loved by people in their life. Without that role model in their life, I think there’s a significant part missing. I’ve had many male clients say, ‘I’ve never had a close male role model or a male mentor in my life.’ And they feel kind of lost because of that,” he adds.

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None of the families interviewed as part of the Gone Boys series believe their sons died by suicide. That is not an uncommon belief for families of people who actually do take their own lives to hold.

There is nothing to suggest suicide is behind the disappearance of the missing men in Gone Boys. The same factors that may increase risk of suicide are also factors which would make the men vulnerable to a violent end.

For his part, Colin MacDonnell is certain his son did not die by suicide. He believes Danny met with foul play. But as he looks back on the trajectory of his son’s life, he regrets that Daniel did not seek help for his mental health.

“It’s too bad that people, many people, don’t accept that they are that way. I mean, you could never explain to Danny that he was like that because it was, all the world was at fault and not him … He would never accept that.”

Listen to Gone Boys, a true-crime podcast part of the Island Crime series, for more on Vancouver Island’s missing men. Gone Boys drops a new episode every Monday. You can catch them on the Frequency Podcast Network.

Rogers Sports & Media is the parent company of this station and the Frequency Podcast Network.