As Men's Health Week closes, Emily Hamblin asks how we change men's and boys' attitudes to health.
This week is Men’s Health Week, an international initiative which exists because men are at higher risk of premature death from most health conditions that should affect men and women equally.
So how does this gender disparity arise, and what does this mean for children?
Evidence shows that men have poorer health literacy than women, are more likely to engage in behaviours that pose a risk to health and are less likely to acknowledge health issues. Men tend to under-utilise professional health care services.
Some researchers have linked male gender roles that characterise men as independent and in control, to men’s perception that seeking medical help involves a risk of losing control and self-esteem, and an admission that they cannot sort the problem out on their own.
Results from our survey of 138 men aged over 16 seem to support these findings. We asked men about the factors, influences and thinking behind their attitudes to health, and what they believed might help to protect and promote the health of the next generation more effectively.
They told us how readily they would use health services for different reasons.
Men’s reluctance to access health services is concerning, particularly in relation to emotional or psychological issues as suicide is the leading cause of death for men under 50 in the UK, and the number of suicides in 15-29 year olds registered between 2010 and 2013 was five times higher for males than females.
When asked what changes might help enable boys and young men to address their health needs effectively in the future, men called for change in social factors such as discourse amongst boys and men (93 per cent), social expectations of men and women (91 per cent), role models (81 per cent) and family attitudes and communication around health (80 per cent).
Our findings from men informed our subsequent consultation with boys aged 9-11 on their attitudes to health. The boys’ ideas about health were at an interesting point of development: still children, they heeded health messages from adults and other authority figures, yet felt varying degrees of agency about decisions that affect their health, and were conscious of external forces that can shape opinions and behaviours.
Improving health outcomes for boys and young men will need a multi-pronged approach involving policymakers, health professionals, parents, teachers and, crucially, boys themselves. This should involve:
- Supporting public services to respond to boys’ and men’s health needs
- Improving knowledge and evidence about boys’ and young men’s current and future health needs and behaviours
- Nurturing and promoting positive health-seeking attitudes and behaviours in boys and young men
- Considering what parents, carers and teachers need to guide and support boys with regards to their health and wellbeing.
In addressing these issues, we must avoid problematising masculinity or inadvertently reinforcing stereotypes about strength and competition. Instead we should promote the idea that a boy or man’s care for his own physical and mental health is a normal and important part of achieving his aspirations.