Posted on 07/11/2018

Men’s Health: Don’t bottle it up

Men’s Health: Don’t bottle it up

In support of Men’s Health Month, we’re calling for men to look after themselves, take care of each other, and talk more openly about their health, feelings and concerns.

Men’s Health Month brings the mental and physical health of our beloved blokes to the forefront of our minds and conversations, in order to help encourage more awareness of those health conditions that affect men the most. In this article, we explore the biggest causes of early death for men in the UK, and speak to men of varying ages about the big issues affecting men’s wellbeing in today’s modern world.

Which conditions affect men’s health the most?

The biggest causes of early death for men in the UK are heart disease, lung cancer, prostate cancer, bowel cancer and suicide, statistics for which are very concerning. Each year in the UK:

  • 47 thousand men are diagnosed with prostate cancer
  • 1.6 million men are living with chronic heart disease
  • 23 thousand men are diagnosed with bowel cancer
  • 25 thousand men are diagnosed with lung cancer
  • 5-6 thousand males aged 10 and over commit suicide

Most people have heard of these things but few people understand the risks, symptoms and potential causes of such life threatening conditions. Prostate cancer only affects men (as women don’t have a prostate) and if it’s caught at an early stage, it is highly treatable and even curable. However, it’s symptoms can be easily dismissed and many men don’t know or understand the disease or what signs to look out for. We asked our group of guys what they know about prostate and testicular cancers.

“I know very little about these, but I know to check my testicles for abnormal lumps that may appear.”

“My Grandad unfortunately died of prostate cancer so I am aware of the symptoms and that this increases my risk of getting it to some degree. I do know the symptoms of testicular cancer and check myself regularly.”

“Men think seeking help is a sign of weakness.”

It’s likely that many men are aware, on some level, of the potential health problems which may affect them at some stage during their lives, but fewer men are aware of the symptoms these conditions present and therefore may not know if they experience them. Even if they do recognise the symptoms, research shows that men are far less likely to seek medical help for health concerns compared to women. We asked our guys to tell us if they see their GP when they’re not feeling 100%.

“I have had recurring issues with my heart in which a sharp pain surges through my chest causing great discomfort. I only really talked to my GP about it to discover if it was a major health issue… I believe men try to disregard health issues in an attempt to retain masculinity or that sort of image. Dependant on the issue they potentially see certain things as minor issues that don’t warrant a trip to the doctors.”

“I have no problem with visiting my GP with health problems, I try not to though unless I need to. I think men think that seeking help is a sign of weakness and feel embarrassed that they have to ask for help. Men feel like they need to be the strong one in a relationship/family environment and needing help makes them appear weak.”

So, our guys are ok with seeing a doctor if they need to, which is great, but they do emphasise that it has to be a necessity, and this could be the psyche that differs between men and women. It’s easy to dismiss minor symptoms as not worth bothering a doctor with, but many health problems start off with niggles that gradually become worse over time, and early diagnosis is key to increasing the treatability of a disease. Our group of guys also suggest that men see masculinity as a direct link to strength and that ill health is a sign of weakness they don’t want to show.

How important is a healthy lifestyle?

Living a healthy lifestyle is generally considered an essential factor for reducing the risk of developing health conditions in the first place. We explored how important exercise, diet and lifestyle are to our group of guys.

“I try and stay healthy and live a healthy lifestyle, more so since I had children as I try to influence them to be healthy, I am also aware I need to do this more as I get older! I go to the gym (when I can drag myself!) and referee adult Sunday league football. I could be healthier though. I feel people are influenced by convenience/fast food and, with being so busy with work and other commitments, not having time to cook means takeaways and ready meals become the norm unfortunately.”

“I like to believe I’m healthy. It is important to me to get as much exercise as possible as I know the physical results will make me happy but achieving various health related goals is a fulfilling experience. I could be healthier if I stopped bingeing on crap foods every now and then.”

We’re happy to hear our guys appreciate the importance of having an active lifestyle as being overweight, eating an unhealthy diet and not getting enough exercise can lead to high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which can both increase the risk of developing a host of conditions including stroke, angina and diabetes.

So far, we’ve learned that our group of guys are aware they should live a healthy lifestyle, and that they try to put this knowledge into action. They are happy to go to their doctor if they are pretty sure there’s something wrong with them (but they really don’t want to waste the doctor’s time with, what they believe to be, lesser issues). They’re also aware of some of the big male-only diseases but, overall, they are not entirely sure what the symptoms of these are.

Next, we explore a really sensitive topic that many of us find difficult to talk about – and our lack of communication about it is, no doubt, a big part of the problem. We’re tackling suicide, specifically amongst men.

Sharing and caring to improve men’s health

Suicide is still one of the most taboo topics in today’s society. Whilst many people realise suicides are a devastating and tragic event, sometimes there is a certain stigma attached to it – suggestions that the person who has taken their own life is somehow at fault, or only thinking of their own needs and problems.

The Samaritans refute many myths about suicide on their website and explain that not all people who commit suicide are mentally ill. They explain how feeling suicidal may be a temporary experience, so if you experience these feelings and can find a way to ask for support at the right time, there’s a higher likelihood of getting through the more challenging periods of your life. The Samaritans also state that suicide is so taboo, people don’t tell others how they feel for fear of upsetting them, However, those who find a way to speak up and share their feelings experience a great sense of relief.

We believe that the only way to break the stigma, raise awareness of suicide risks and encourage people to seek help when they are feeling down/depressed/anxious or suicidal, is to talk. Boys and men are most at risk of committing suicide and, whilst nobody knows for sure why this is the case, the men we spoke to had some interesting insights into what affects a man’s sense of wellbeing in society today.

“Men try to bear the stress of the whole family on their shoulders. Tradition says the man should be the main income for a family and some still feel they should be the main providers, which brings stress over money worries, with a pressure to succeed in their career and bring in a salary suitable to provide for their family. Body image has become more prominent in today’s society and the pressure to look good is bigger than ever due to social media.”

Our guys all suggested that this traditional view of masculinity and strength was still prevalent today, and still shaping the way they live and feel. Even the youngest in our group, at just 19, was acutely aware of “old stereotypical male and female roles in society, e.g. men are seen as ‘the bread winners’ and women ‘carer’s of the family’”. He talked about the importance of men feeling adequate and that if they don’t, their wellbeing may suffer. Similarly, many mentioned that the way they look is a big factor in how they feel about themselves, suggesting that there may be more men living with body image issues than our society realises.

Since many of our contributors emphasised that men feel a lot of pressure to provide and succeed, we also asked them about how they deal with the stress and worries this pressure causes, to find out if they would talk about these issues and who they would open up to.

“I generally don’t like talking much about my feelings in a serious manner as I prefer to deal with them myself, however, if I feel like I can’t physically cope on my own I would usually talk to my dad.”

“I would probably keep it to myself as I wouldn’t want to worry my family/friends and would probably feel embarrassed. I have raised feelings in the past to friends/colleagues and I think the attitude I got of “man up” would stop me doing this again.”

It’s worrying to see that, even though equality and understanding are big issues within our society, the “traditional” (or, in fact, outdated) masculine stereotype still looms over some men, preventing them from speaking about how they feel unless they absolutely have to. More worrying still is that even when some men choose to open up, they are stopped in their tracks by others who are governed by that stereotype and are told to “just get on with it”. Despite this, there was a stark contrast in how our guys responded when we asked them how they would treat their friends or loved ones, if they needed to talk.

“I have and will always be a friend and supportive figure to anyone that needs me in my life. My friends have been through harsh break ups and family issues, and I made sure I was there to show them they aren’t facing things alone.”

Let’s change outdated stereotypes

So what’s this all about guys? Some men want to talk but don’t feel as though they are able to share for fear of being shot down, but others are willing to listen and give you all the support they can. It’s thought that suicide is caused by a multitude of factors, with a build-up of thoughts, feelings and events that drive a person to feeling so desperate they cannot escape their situation. After speaking with our group of guys, it’s easier for us to see how this can occur, when we understand that males are under more pressure than ever before and feeling unable to tell people what they’re going through.

Even young generations of men are growing up believing in stereotypes that support an outdated view of masculinity, contributing to them avoiding opening up about how they feel. Perhaps as a society, we need to encourage our men not to bottle it up. Maybe we need more emphasis on teaching our boys, from being babes in arms, that emotions and feelings are ok – less of the “big boys don’t cry!” and more “tell me how you feel?” We definitely need to encourage men to stay in tune with their bodies and get that medical check-up, even if they think it may be just a minor health complaint.

And to all the men out there – look after each other! It’s tough to change the traditions and values that were instilled in you as a child, but it’s definitely possible. Look out for your mates and ask them if they’re ok – let them know you’re there for them, and if you’re worried about your health or any aspect of your life, open up to your other half, your parents, siblings, your buddies or even your GP… don’t suffer in silence.

If you need advice about medical conditions, check out our condition pages or the NHS website. The Samaritans provides a variety of ways to get in touch, so you can talk to someone about how you’re feeling, or if you’re concerned about a loved one, and Mind provides sound advice about suicidal feelings as well as a helpline.

Thanks to all our contributors to this important blog – we hope you stay well, healthy and happy.

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