Psychologist Elisabeth Shaw explores men’s health and wellness and how to improve proactivity around health matters (both mental and physical).
It’s Men’s Health Week and it is true enough that there are significant health issues to be addressed. The biggest risk seems to be that men, by and large, refuse to take their health seriously.
For all the jokes about man-flu, men are generally more likely to suffer from a range of serious health conditions, such as strokes, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. They are more likely to engage in risky behaviours that lessen their lifespan like smoking and excessive drinking, and avoid exercise.
While women live longer than men (with an average 5 per cent higher lifespan), they report more illnesses, are more likely to have a regular health care provider, attend more doctor visits and have more hospital stays.
This has been described as the morbidity-mortality paradox – that women are sicker, but live longer. In reaching out for help it appears women have more people in their corner ready to assist.
Despite the stakes being high, it’s commonly understood that men are less likely to engage in self-care and more likely to rely on women to keep their health on track.
No doubt stemming from the history of mothers being caregivers, it can be a small (and not entirely erroneous) leap to think that female partners will assume that role later in life. We see these assumptions play out in advertisements on women’s toilet doors encouraging them to steer their men towards a prostate check.
The roles of women as nurturers and men as stoic risk takers, is entrenched and pervasive. Indeed, if women stood back from their role as caregiver and left self-care entirely to their male partners, they might be seen as uncaring or selfish – rather than acknowledging self-responsibility.
And if a man kept up with his self-care more assiduously by having regular check-ups rather than attending his GP for a well-advanced reason, could he be laughed off as a hypochondriac?
Thanks to breast screening and pap smears, women are programmed by society to be into preventative health. Even in the course of a “well” life, women are attuned to their bodies, and pregnancy and breast feeding only heightens the need to be alert on a physical level.
Perhaps that’s why they tend to drive almost all of the family health care decisions and are highly proportionate customers on male health sites, seeking information and solutions on behalf of their male partners. Men don’t have the same biological triggers. It often takes a crisis to change that pattern, such as erectile dysfunction, stress or high blood pressure.
Entrenched fears and a way forward
It is possible that men feel less comfortable admitting to illness, worried it could be seen as a sign of weakness. The sort of sickness where you take to your bed and request 24-hour care from a partner is one thing, but making an appointment with a GP is quite another.
While women are more likely to seek psychological assistance and talk about their worries with friends at a ratio of four to one compared to men, asking for help and admitting something wrong that can’t be solved by the man himself, builds a picture of fear about vulnerability.
There are a number of things that could be worth considering if the status quo is to change and men take on a larger self-care role. Here are a few;
1. Talk about roles and responsibilities
Bring to conscious mind all the things that influence the relationship positions you take, and how it serves you to continue to do so. Consider the downsides of perpetuating the habit of taking up tasks more properly attended to by others.
2. View health and self-care as a sign of pride
Communicate that being proactive is attractive and strengthening, rather than a sign of weakness. Men are more likely to seek treatment when they understand that these issues, and their level of health, impacts on others like partners and children.
3. Embrace team versus individual
We are at our best when we work together. Most things are enhanced when we do them with others. As women commonly do, men should consider exercising together. This can provide the context to talk to male friends about health care more generally.
4. Explore the meaning of neglect
Rather than dismiss neglectful behavior, men should stop and ask themselves: why am I putting that appointment off? Why am I choosing to live with the uncertainty about my health? What am I afraid of? If I do need to do something more public, like drink less, what is my problem with that?
5. Manage the anxiety
For women who are alert to their male partners burying their head in the sand, talk directly about what seems to be happening, and explain that while it is tempting to give into the anxiety of non-action and take over, you won’t be doing that. That leaves the ball squarely in your partner’s court.
Too often, it is said “I wish I’d got help sooner” because the suffering, whether emotional or physical, wouldn’t have been so long and the stakes perhaps not so high.
Men’s Health Week is a good chance to do some thinking and talking about what is going on for men, and how interpersonal and societal systems might progress rather than maintain the status quo.
Elisabeth Shaw is CEO of Relationships Australia NSW and a clinical and counselling psychologist specialising in couple and family work.