How To Encourage The Men In Your Life To Open Up About Their Health, Mental And Physical

Men are far more likely to die by suicide or leave diseases unchecked, writes Megan Roantree.

Men are dying because they are not talking. It sounds dramatic and sensational but it is true. Whether it’s mental or physical pain, health issues are going undiagnosed and are resulting in death, and we need to do something about it.

Men and women both get sick, yet while women may chat to their friends, acknowledge the issue and head to the doctor, many men continue to keep quiet and let something build up within, sometimes until it’s too late. Looking at mental health alone, men are disproportionately more affected. In Ireland men are four times more likely to die by suicide than women, according to a terrifying report released earlier this year by Men’s Health Forum in Ireland and the HSE.

“The way I was brought up boys and men were supposed to be strong, stoic, know where you’re going, and be a provider,” says Lorcan Brennan who is Men’s Health Coordinator at Men’s Development Network.

If my inner narrative tells me to be strong and independent I’ll see it as a weakness or a reminder that I’m failing if I go to the doctor or use a service. I’ll feel like I should be able to get through this by myself. So that has definitely been an obstacle.

But whether we’re looking at mental or physical health, men being expected to act a certain way and be a certain character in many cases has had a negative effect. “Many of us are brought up to ignore pain and say ‘that’ll go away’. These are all very subtle gendered messages that get picked up as men or boys – if you get injured on the pitch you’re told get up and get on with it, to just walk it off. You mightn’t even wash the wound, so these are very nebulous stories and narratives that very often boys pick up,” Lorcan explains.

While strength and independence should always be encouraged whether you’re male or female, the idea that you have to be those things alone, and all the time, can be incredibly damaging to someone who is struggling. With many of the issues coming from early in life, it can be difficult to expect men to simply start chatting about their deepest feelings when they haven’t been before.

There are ways you can support the men in your life to ensure they know they can come to you, and talking is a start. “I think that real intimacy, which comes from sharing and talking, and having really good relationships is really powerful for well-being,” Lorcan adds. While talking is of huge benefit to anyone who is having a hard time, a well-rounded and fulfilling life should go hand in hand with it.

“Talking is certainly helpful but in the broad gambit of health I think we have to be really careful that it’s not just talking, it’s about the environments, and being aware that we have access to resources support, it’s about eating and sleeping well and watching what we smoke and drink,” he explains.

It may sound obvious, or even patronising but letting a loved one know that it’s okay to be vulnerable can help to shift the idea of what a man should be. “Finding strength in vulnerability is so important, we need to recalibrate as men how we experience weakness, and the word weakness, because vulnerability can be a powerful strength if it’s modelled right, and it’s important that men know that.”

Much of the issue lies with language that subconsciously told men to be a certain way, so likewise, the language we use to help alter that is important. “We are learning that there are differences between men and women when it comes to language that we feel supported by,” says Lorcan.

Of course a lot of what we’re talking about goes for human beings, but there are key things we are learning when it comes to working with men. For example, there is not one type of man, there are many types of masculinities and expressions of that masculinity. Because of that for us as service providers, our programmes and initiatives need to take into account the broad aspects of masculinities.

“We’re getting that language right, for example with mental health the world ‘mental’ is challenging, for all people, but particularly for men. We just hear the word mental as there are all kinds of negative association,” he explains. “Language either locks us out or lets us in, and that’s really important in our campaigns.”

With many of the issues lying in the way our male counterparts were brought up, it’s clear to anyone raising a child now that things are changing for the better. So is each generation getting a little better at opening up and speaking out when something is not right?

“Some of the evidence would be saying yes we are thankfully. There is a movement now for many of us as men beginning to talk and use services and get more out of our friendships and relationships,” Lorcan, who has been working with men’s health for 17 years, explains.

As a women, it often comes more naturally to us to talk and to open up a conversation about when something is not right, and while this is a powerful tool we can use to help look after the people in our life, it’s important for everyone to be able to look after their own mind too.

“Traditionally other people have minded our health as men. When we were doing the national men’s health policy we found that if a man was having an issue, he’d probably talk to a significant woman in his life. So traditionally women were the gatekeepers of our health, and we need change that so we take more responsibility for our own health and our family health in a much more equal way.”

So while talking and checking in will never be a bad idea, there are lots more men can do to help look after themselves. An initiative called Men’s Sheds is proving to be a hugely successful way of getting men to open up to other men. A Shed is a space in your community where men can come together to find meaning, purpose, friendship and belonging while undertaking activities.

There are over 400 men’s sheds in Ireland, it’s a fantastic celebration about what that means for health and wellbeing. It’s great to be able to talk about our lives in a way that doesn’t necessarily clinicalise us, but instead is about enhancing life. The evidence coming back is that for many men finding that informal setting where they feel safe is a wonderful connection, where they can learn skills, have fun, all while being around some key health and well-being messages.

As with most illnesses physical or mental, the doctor or expert is the most important step. While you can be supportive and encourage loved ones, professional support is imperative too.

“For any man I’d always say don’t put anything off. It’s really important that we look after ourselves and use the service there for us. Look around and see what is there for you. The sheds are there but there are loads of different things that are happening in communities even volunteering and finding those connections can be really powerful.”

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