Suffering in silence is an unhealthy prescription for men

Alan White
Alan White
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IF only the answer to improving the parlous state of men’s health and their high rate of premature death lay in simply putting a nice shed in the garden and encouraging them to potter about – or even building a “community shed” where they could escape isolation and potential depression by taking part in activities while meeting others.

The Government might order shed kits by the thousand and deliver them to the doorstep by hand if this was the easy prescription. No-one is pouring scorn on the idea of sheds, by the way, and an Australian idea of using large sheds as meeting places for men who may otherwise spend a great deal of time alone is slowly catching on. As well as offering relaxing activities and sociability, they can possibly also be places to discuss health problems – a way of reaching out to a segment of the population that is notoriously slow to access health services – meaning problems are greater and more difficult to treat when help is eventually sought.

Talking of sheds does, however, seem like grasping at small straws when you consider the size of the health problems among men in Europe. Australian GP Gregory Melcher says in this week’s British Medical Journal that Ireland is the only country in Europe which has a national men’s health policy. “It seems that in much of the EU men’s health has not yet sufficiently entered the political, or medical, consciousness to yield meaningful changes in service delivery,” he says. And yet, according to research done by experts in Leeds, our men’s health is in need of urgent treatment but their needs are not specifically addressed, either by strategy or practice.

Alan White of Leeds Metropolitan University, who is the world’s first professor of men’s health, recently presented to the European Commission a report highlighting the differences in life expectancy between men and women. He and co-authors found that in 2007 there were more than 630,000 deaths among men between the ages of 15 and 64 compared to 300,000 female deaths in the same age bracket.

Men in the poorest circumstances did worst of all health-wise, often dying many years earlier than those in more prosperous areas. The same was true in every European country.

Also writing in this week’s BMJ, Prof White and colleagues say separate strategies are urgently needed to target men, and they believe there is a need for “a visible, integrated focus on boys’ and men’s health within primary and secondary school curriculums that can foster positive models of physical, psychological and social development.” Businesses, employers and unions should collaborate to promote men’s health in the workplace and policies should be formulated to target marginalised groups, they say. They also report that where health services have been taken to men in settings such as pubs, sports clubs, schools and youth centres, these moves have been successful.

Prof White told the Yorkshire Post that the high rate of premature death and rising rate of suicide among men spell misery and hardship for families, as well as representing a major blow to every country’s economy, which can’t afford to lose so many men who are still in the productive prime of life. Life expectancy in the EU stands at 76.07 for men and 82.21 for women.

“Nearly all of the health problems that should affect men and women equally actually affect men more, including a 60 per cent increase in risk of developing cancer. Women traditionally are much more willing to access health services early and discuss problems. But also there are services such as weight-loss programmes which are targeted much more at women and used by them. Many men are overweight and they tend to carry the excess around the middle, which means they are more likely to become diabetic, although we know that women are getting more overweight.” Prof White says a weight loss programme for men run by Leeds Met within the setting of Leeds Rhinos last year was “very successful”, so targeting men within an environment where they feel comfortable is important. There are more overweight people generally in Yorkshire than in any other English county, says the professor.

The effects of the economic crisis are already being felt in detrimental knocks-ons for male health in Greece and Ireland, where suicides among men are on the increase. “The need to invest in men’s health is urgent, and there are many areas where it wouldn’t take that much to make meaningful improvements.”