One in five men will die before the age of 65. Men die on average six years earlier than women. Suicide is the leading cause of death among men under 45. These are stark statistics, yet men apparently still find it more difficult than women to seek help when they have health worries.
What is being done to change men’s attitudes to health?
Boys will be boys
Dr Mark Street is a GP who has worked in the NHS and private sector for 26 years and has a private practice at Spire Parkway Hospital in Solihull. “I have noticed the unwillingness of men to go to their GP and talk about health matters. I often see male patients who have reached a stage when their partner is asking them to seek help,” he says. “Many are suffering symptoms, such as lack of sleep, mood swings, lower performance at work or relationship issues. Yet despite being concerned they allow the situation to worsen.”
An EU–wide report, ‘The State of Men’s Health in Europe’, addressed the reasons behind why men are less likely than women to visit their doctor or pharmacist, and found that it could be down to the influence of culture on the shaping of masculine identity. From an early age, the report states: ‘Boys learn not to show physical or emotional vulnerability, and they are encouraged to strive for achievement and success.’
It adds, ‘fear surrounding the potential loss of masculinity may result in a façade of control and stoicism, instead of honesty about reporting symptoms or openness about feelings and insecurities associated with particular illnesses’. Meanwhile, according to a report cited by the Men’s Health Forum: ‘Health is often socially constructed as a feminine concern.’
So-called ‘health literacy’ is also an important factor, and there are not only differences in health literacy levels between men and women, but between men of different socio-economic groups. A 2017 report from the OECD, ‘Understanding the socio-economic divide in Europe’, found that: ‘Men with lower levels of education have 2.7 years less life expectancy than the better educated’.
This is due to various factors; a King’s Fund report found that men are not only more likely to indulge in four risky behaviours such as smoking, excessive alcohol use, poor diet and low levels of physical activity – but that professional men were least likely to have three or four unhealthy behaviours and unskilled men most likely to have them.
Karen Stalbow, Head of Policy, Knowledge and Impact at Prostate Cancer UK, says that the charity’s research shows that men sometimes don’t see the point of worrying about ill health, despite the risk of ignoring it: “There are several factors that stop men who are at higher than average risk of prostate cancer from recognising their risk. Some men we spoke to thought it wasn’t worth worrying about exactly what illness you’ll get. They preferred instead to just deal with it when it happens. This means they will likely only address issues if they show symptoms, unless directed by a GP.”
Dr Street points out that there may be a different attitude among younger male patients thanks to greater access to digital information: “I personally think younger men are accessing their GPs more than other age groups due to a heightened awareness of health problems through social media and the internet.”
Karen says, however, that men are more likely to seek help for health concerns the older they get: “We know that some men can be reluctant to visit their GP with health concerns, but recent research we undertook showed that, as they get older, men can become more likely to act quickly when they notice changes in their body.”
Data from the Samaritans Suicide Statistics Report 2017 reveals that the highest UK suicide rate was for men aged 40–44, and that male rates across the UK remain three times higher than female rates. The 2016 ‘Masculinity Audit’ from male suicide prevention charity, Calm, found that men are less likely than women to tell friends about being depressed, and doctors may not spot danger signs. The tide may be turning, however, thanks to campaigns such as Time To Change’s ‘Be In Your Mate’s Corner’ campaign and the young Royals’ charity Heads Together.
Time to Change, the mental health campaign run by charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, carried out research into men’s attitudes towards mental health over the course of a year, which included feedback from 18 focus groups.
This insight revealed barriers preventing men from opening up. Men are less likely to report their own experiences of mental health problems, less likely to discuss them with a professional and more likely to say that mental health problems are the result of a ‘lack of self-discipline and willpower’.
A negative perception of mental health problems may be a reason why men don’t seek help, according to Dr Street: “Often mental health issues are perceived as a weakness by male patients and many are reluctant to ‘open up’ to their partner or GP as they see this as being a failure,” he explains.
Men, it’s time to talk as if your lives depended on it.