When you think of the groups of people in our society whose needs are considered important, who comes to mind? Older people? Women? Children? Black and Minority ethnic groups? Disabled people? The unemployed? One group that never seems to make it onto the agenda for attention is, oddly enough, men. Why would that be?
You may think that men's needs are not addressed because, after all, they largely run the show, they largely own the show, and if they need something surely all they have to do is get it for themselves? Not entirely unreasonable maybe, but it assumes two things - one, that men are in touch with what they need and, two, they are prepared to express that need.
I recently edited a public health report on men's health. The (male) leader of our council said 'Nobody ever talks about men's health, why don't you do a report on that?' So we did, and as a starting point we
looked at some data. The results were startling.
The Whitehall study of heart disease in male civil servants showed very clearly that the higher a man's income, and the more senior his position, the lower his risk of heart disease. More recently Michael Marmot, in his review of health inequalities, said:
'The more favoured people are, socially and economically, the better their health.'
While men are represented in every section of society, on average they are socially and economically advantaged compared to women. In the UK, for example, four fifths of members of parliament are men; 90% of people on The Times Rich List are men; men occupy 83% of top executive positions and by the age of 40, men in the UK are earning on average 27% more than women.
According to research they should therefore be living longer, and with better health, than women. And yet that is not the case. Men are worse off than women in just about every area of health and emotional well-being:
They die, on average, four years younger than women, at every age they are more likely to get heart disease, cancer, and lung disease. They are more likely to be overweight, smoke, drink too much, take drugs, have accidents and contract sexually transmitted diseases. They are four times more likely to commit suicide, they do less well at school, and are many many times more likely to commit a crime and go to prison.
'The different effects of socioeconomic status and gender are such that the least well off women still have lower mortality rates than the most well off men.'
The Acheson Report, 1998.
If this disadvantage were the case in any other population group, can you imagine the outcry? And yet, in the three major reports on health inequalities that have been produced in this country over the last forty years, gender inequality has had only the briefest of mentions, and did not make it into Michael Marmot's (widely acclaimed) report of 2010 at all! Seven out of eleven commissioners of the report were men.
"The myth that the male is culturally favoured ...is clung to, despite the fact that every critical statistic in the area of longevity, disease, suicide, crime, accidents, childhood emotional disorders, alcoholism, and drug addiction shows a disproportionately higher male rate."
Herb Goldberg, author of The Hazards of Being Male
While it has long been suspected that men get more heart disease than women because of biological differences, hard evidence for this has proved illusive.
What is much clearer is that men, on average, have unhealthier lifestyles. Cancer Research UK calculate that 45% of the excess cancer risk in men can be put down to this. Social support has a protective effect on health and well-being, but while the average woman has several people in her life in whom she confides, the average man has one person, usually his partner. While women tend to seek advice if they are worried about their health, men do not. Added to this is the cultural pressure on a man to be strong and unemotional.
'I'd rather tell my doctor that I can't get an erection than tell them that I'm feeling low.'
Quote from the Men's Health Forum
Nick Clarke, a BBC Radio 4 presenter who delayed seeking help for what turned out to be a sarcoma in his leg said:
'I've tried to rationalise why an apparently intelligent human being would behave so illogically. The most obvious reason, of course is fear. Men's fears of doctors is notorious, I think it also has something to do with an unwillingness to lose control.'
Most men would prefer not to discuss these issues, and those that have have not always had the support one would hope for...
I've gone from being quite wealthy, when I was defending women, to being quite poor defending men.'
Warren Farrell, The Myth of Male Power
The occasional man has said that men are actually disadvantaged in our society, contrary to received opinion about this. For example, men's rights activist, Herb Goldberg, claimed in 1976 that men were...
"oppressed by the cultural pressures that have denied him his feelings... by the urgency for him to 'act like a man' which blocks his ability to respond ... both emotionally and physiologically, and by a generalized self-hate that causes him to [not] feel comfortable ... when he lives for joy and for personal growth."
We are left, it seems, with a paradox. A boy, born today, can (still) look forward to a life that is more successful, more affluent, more powerful than his sister, and yet he will probably suffer from ill health sooner, die younger, be more emotionally isolated and be more likely to take risks with his body and his liberty.
Try this (if you're a man)
1. To what extent do you recognise yourself in this article? Do you take risks with your health, are you reluctant to talk to people about how you feel, do you have health symptoms that you would prefer to sit on rather than seek advice for?
2. If so, what is it that stops you from taking better care of yourself? What is hard about asking for advice, difficult about confiding in friends?
3. If the result was a longer, healthier and happier life, what small changes might you be prepared to make?
If you are a woman, pass this on to the men in your life......
Take care of yourself this week