Being male in America brings with it an unrealistic expectation that you should be tough, masculine and self-sufficient. Unfortunately, that mentality often carries over to how men view their health and their healthcare. Discussing physical problems, even with a doctor, is not something men are “supposed” to do, presumably because it is a sign of weakness. In polling done by the Cleveland Clinic and others, over half of men said their health wasn’t something they talked about. Only 60% get annual physicals (compared to 80% of women) and 40% only see their doctor when they have a serious health issue. This false and harmful stereotype often prevents men from seeking out necessary care, both physically and mentally.
About 1 in 5 men admit being afraid of learning the results of physical exams, leading to a state of denial or lack of initiative to seek testing or services. This is worrisome because men are at higher risk than women to have some form of cancer (50% vs 33%) especially oral and throat cancers. These cancers are highly correlated with smoking, and statistically men smoke more than women (15.3% vs. 12.7%).
In addition to smoking, men are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than women (11.5% vs. 6.4%), and they often tend to eat less healthy than women. Poor dietary habits lead to problems like obesity, heart disease and high cholesterol. Poor lifestyle choices and lack of preventative care means men’s life expectancy is on average 5 years shorter than women.
Most men are aware they are at risk for prostate cancer, the second most common for men behind skin cancer and the second leading cause of death in men after heart disease. About 249,000 men in the U.S. will be diagnosed with prostate cancer and about 34,000 will die from it. To put this in perspective, an estimated 47,500 people will die by suicide and 43,600 women will die of breast cancer.
Routine screening for prostate cancer is important because, like most cancers, the sooner the disease is caught, the higher the recovery rate. Men need to be screened regularly for a number of problems, not just prostate cancer. Besides regular prostate screenings, men should talk to their doctors about:
The reluctance many men show about discussing their health applies to mental health as well, arguably more so because of the stigma surrounding it. For example, according to the American Psychological Association, over 30% of men will experience depression but are less likely to seek help for any mental health problem. This can easily result in feelings of hopelessness which, in turn, often precedes suicidal ideation. Men die by suicide over three and a half times more often than women in part due to this problem. However, in addition to being less likely to seek help, depression (and other emotions) in men can manifest differently than in women. As a result, it can go unnoticed or be misinterpreted by loved ones.
For example, when dealing with events that would elicit expressions of sadness in women, men will often show anger, aggressiveness or physical symptoms such as elevated heart rates, headaches and gastrointestinal distress. Similar feelings of anger, uncontrolled temper or shame also tend to surface when men experience PTSD – an important note as June is also PTSD Awareness month.
Other indirect signs of mental illness including PTSD in men involve, not surprisingly, increased alcohol or drug use, sleep problems, risk taking behaviors and difficulty concentrating.
Part of the reason for this displacement is due to the enculturation males experience. Boys who are taught not to show emotion, pain or to seek comfort when they are distressed can experience alexithymia, the inability to recognize or describe one's own emotions. They consequently literally have no language of emotions and couldn’t communicate about their emotions if they wanted to.
All of this being said, the call to action is clear: Men must take initiative and prioritize all facets of their health, and they must be taught at a young age to express any pain or abnormalities regarding their health. Hesitancy to seek healthcare is a symptom of traditional and stereotypic masculinity in men that must be changed.
Taking care of your body and brain is not weak. Men can and should rethink their assumptions about how and who they must be – in many cases, their lives depend on it.
Loved ones can support such changes without calling for a complete “overhaul” of men’s identities. The media has made efforts in this regard with mental health awareness campaigns that stress “It’s ok to not be ok”. Encourage the men in your life to seek consistent and preventative healthcare services. Showing that extra ounce of support may be the boost they needed to make an appointment.
The bottom line? Men can and should take holistic care of themselves both physically and mentally. And to successfully start, you need to know where to begin. For action items, tips, stats and more regarding men’s health, see the attached list of resources.
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