Men’s health: It’s time to act

Thursday, February 18th, 2016 |

It’s time men demanded action from their governments and health services to tackle the big problems with men’s health. We can no longer hope that politicians and doctors will, on their own, do what is needed.  Quite simply, they must be persuaded, prodded and pushed.

The case for tackling men’s health is clear – the statistics are shocking and speak for themselves:

  • Globally, male life expectancy, at 68 years, lags five years behind female life expectancy. There is not a single country in which male life expectancy exceeds female.
  • The life expectancy gap between the sexes has actually widened since 1970 and will widen further by 2030—by then, global male life expectancy is expected to be seven years shorter than female life expectancy.
  • Men have more than a 40% probability of dying between the ages of 50 and 74 while women have probability of under 30%.
  • The global suicide rate in men is almost twice that in women,
  • Three times as many men as women die as a result of smoking and almost twice as many die because of alcohol.
  • About 1.25 million people worldwide die each year as a result of road traffic accidents of which about three-quarters are male.

Too many men lead lives that are too short, painful and unfulfilled. Given that the highest attainable standard of health is a fundamental right of every human being, men’s unnecessary suffering must be seen as unethical and unacceptable.

Poor male health has a significant economic cost. This has been estimated at some US $479 billion annually in the United States alone; in Canada,  the costs associated with smoking, excess weight, alcohol and physical inactivity in men has been estimated at about US $26 billion a year. These are sums on a scale that should give any politician, however hard-hearted, cause to consider how they can be reduced.

Women are also adversely affected by men’s health problems. This is most obvious with sexually transmitted infections. But women are also impacted by the financial impact of losing a breadwinner, having to assume caring responsibilities (which can in turn cause loss of income and restrict educational and employment opportunities), and male violence linked to alcohol misuse. Moreover, women have to face the emotional distress of losing their partners, fathers, sons or brothers prematurely.

So what can be done? These 10 steps would help:

  • Health services should be designed with men as well as women in mind. Men would find it much easier to use services if they were open when they are not at work and if they look and feel to men as if they are welcome (e.g. there should be posters and leaflets aimed at men).
  • Services should go to where men are rather than passively wait for men to turn up. Suitable venues include workplaces, sports stadia and faith organisations. Digital health services are likely to be particularly appealing to men.
  • Health campaigns (e.g. on stopping smoking) should be targeted at both men and women. Many men are influenced by messages that leave women cold, and vice versa.
  • Boys should be taught in schools about health, self-care and how to use health services.
  • The media can do much more to cover men’s health issues. It can’t be left just to Men’s Health magazine which is anyway targeted at younger men.
  • Employers have a responsibility to safeguard the health of their workforce. It is also in their interests to improve their employees’ health to reduce sick leave and to boost morale and productivity. Such action could be particularly valuable for men.
  • Governments and international health bodies, such as the World Health Organisation, should have policy specifically on men’s health. The Australian, Brazilian and Irish governments have already published national men’s health policies so this no longer an unusual or even especially innovative idea.
  • Men’s health work should focus mainly on the groups of men with the worst health (e.g. homeless men, unemployed and low-income men, migrant and ethnic minority men, gay men). But all men should benefit from a new approach to health that recognises that men and women have different attitudes, behaviours and needs.
  • Mental health needs particular attention. Male depression and body image disorders are significantly under-diagnosed and under-treated while the high levels of male suicide remain a serious problem.
  • Men must not be blamed for their poor health. Men have been brought up to conform to a male role – strong, reticent, stoical, risk-taking – that is not always good for their health Blaming also tends to make people defensive and even less likely to change. It would be far better to support and encourage men towards better health.

To achieve this, men – and the women who care about them – have to become men’s health advocates. We have to start demanding a new approach to men’s health, by:

  • Asking our elected representatives to take action.
  • Raising the issue with our families, friends, work colleagues and within our local communities.
  • Talking to our healthcare providers about changing the way their services are delivered.
  • Using social and other media to highlight and discuss the problems with men’s health and opportunities for change.
  • Supporting men’s health organisations by becoming a member, making a donation, and getting involved.
  • Using existing health events, especially International Men’s Health Week (in 2016, June 13-17), as a hook for raising men’s health issues.
  • Being more open about our own health concerns to start to break down the silence that currently surrounds men’s health.

In this work, it is essential not to pit men’s health against women’s health. Women’s health programmes are vital too and action to improve men’s health must not be at their expense. This need not be a zero sum game.

If men’s voices can start to be heard, we can at last put their health on governments’ agendas and ensure progress towards better health for all.

This blog was first published (under a different title) by The Good Men Project on 17 February 2016.

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