MEDICINE HAT -- Many communities across Canada have seen increases in mental health issues since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but perhaps none more so than Medicine Hat.

Since June, the community has been rocked by the loss of seven men to suicide.

With so many people suffering, a group of seven Medicine Hat men came together to co-found the Inner Man Project.

They've launched a Facebook page, a private forum online, and a community support group of peer-to-peer sessions to encourage men to share their stories, with a focus on mental health and mental illness.

One of the co-founders, Dylan Eckes, says they took the initiative because of the community crisis and the need to start a different conversation.

It's been just over two weeks since the Inner Man Project launched and the local reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.

"As I said, there's a lot of suffering going on in Medicine Hat right now. Men knowing that they have somewhere to go to, the women in their lives, the families in their lives, knowing that their men have somewhere to go to is the biggest thing," said Eckes.

"Knowing that they have a community support group and a private forum to go discuss their feelings, their emotions, their struggles. Whether that's financially, or breakups, job losses, it doesn't matter what the issues are because they have somewhere they can go to talk about them."

Trying to break down the stigma around mental health has been a decades-long fight, especially when it comes to men. Eckes says masculinity can sometimes be an obstacle for men to open up, so they're promoting a different kind.

"We're trying to promote positive masculinity. It's OK to be a strong-willed person, take care of your family, have good morals and be tough," he said.

"But at the same time, connect with other men and your family in this safe space to talk about struggles and mental health."

Another of the project's co-founders, Shayne Cockerill, says it's been a struggle for many people in the community over the last little while.

He talked to a couple of friends who were feeling low, and says while working with young men and youth at his job he could tell mental health issues were running rampant because of the COVID situation and everything that's come with it.

"Then I reached out to Dylan, I've known him since high school, and I thought we should partner up to do something about this," he said.

"I've had my own personal losses, people that I'm closed to have been impacted by the losses, and I've seen the pain for them. I just wanted to do what I could to alleviate that pressure for a lot of people."

The Inner Man Project can be a bridge for men to seek support, whether peer-to-peer or professionally, and help raise awareness around what's been happening.

Like Eckes, he's received positive feedback from people in regards to the project as well.

"People that I know personally that are reaching out and saying stuff that I never thought in a million years would say something and be a part of this," he said.

"It's such a healing process for a lot of people, I see the goodness going in it, and I'm just excited to keep helping more people."

The Inner Man Project is trying to make it OK for men in Medicine Hat to say they're not OK, and so far, they've gotten numerous comments and discussions going even on the open Facebook page, with many more in the private forum.

According to Melissa Eckes, another co-founder and Dylan's wife, just starting the conversation can go a long way.

She says whether it's a wife asking her husband how his day was, or a sister asking her brother how he's doing, it all opens up the dialogue.

Melissa has also seen the positive impact the project is having, with many men opening up and telling their stories for the first time.

"We want to connect other guys in the community, not just in Medicine Hat but outside of there, with each other to know that they aren't alone and that talking through their stories might inspire someone else to open up," she said.

"They might find the connection that they need to get the help and support that's needed."

As the only woman in the group, Melissa says it has really given her more perspective on how difficult of a topic it can be for women to talk to men about their mental health.

"Whether it's a dad, a brother, a friend or a partner, it's such a closed off-topic that I feel like we do have to break down that barrier as women as well to let them know it's OK to talk about these things, whether it be with other men or us," she said.

Their Facebook page focuses locally in Medicine Hat but has already begun reaching other parts of the country, and is expected to surpass 1,500 likes this week.

All of the co-founders are hoping they can continue to create sustained change in the community moving forward.