Facial hair, happiness and male menstruation

5 November 2015

So here we are in Movember again. From their original focus on prostate cancer, the Movember Foundation now has work programmes on other aspects of men’s health, including mental health.

Over the past few years there has been growing awareness that there are significant gender differences between men and women in relation to what keeps them mentally healthy and well, as well as the apparent prevalence of mental health problems. For example, women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression but men are much more likely to take their own lives.

There are plenty of reasons put forward for these differences (see for example our booklet on older men’s mental health, Grouchy Old Men? or this publication by the Men’s Health Forum) but one thing that is sometimes said about many men is they have much less health literacy than women, that they lack the vocabulary to articulate health issues, especially when it comes to emotional and mental health.

It's certainly true that unlike women, we don't have the experience of feeling pretty rubbish once a month from our adolescence onwards. Nor do we have the experience that the majority of women have of engaging with health services around what is usually a very positive health issue, ie giving birth. "I've not had a day off sick in my life" and "I've not seen a doctor for over 30 years" are male badges of honour statements. Heaven help that man when he does feel so unwell he has to take time off to see a doctor.

Of course one mustn't over generalise. More sympathetic reporting of mental health issues in the media; a growing health consciousness among men; a willingness to seek help; innovative approaches with schools, colleges and employers; using sport as a vehicle to raise awareness; or other ‘man friendly’ community interventions to engage ‘hard to reach’ groups are changing perceptions and experiences.

Yet sometimes it suits to over generalise. Getting blokes to kick a football around, or be busy in a shed frequently seems to be the received wisdom as regards acceptable ways of engaging men and providing avenues in to discussing health issues. But even here mentioning the words "mental health" is often still considered to be as much of a no-no as a woman growing a 'tache in November.

Yet if we get too oblique or roundabout in our approaches to raising the issue of mental health, then we might never actually get beyond having a good kick around or making a table. And by building interventions around traditional male activities, we also run the risk of further isolating and excluding some men who do not fit these stereotypes or feel comfortable in these roles - with the possibility of actually exacerbating mental health difficulties.

Don't get me wrong - sporting activities, Men in Sheds, and the like, play an incredibly important role in engaging men and when done properly provide an invaluable way into men's health and wellbeing. But promoting positive mental health among men and engaging men when they do experience difficulties must include other more nuanced approaches that recognise different (and changing) male identities.

The prospect of Kate Moss and the Duchess of Cambridge growing moustaches is as likely as a man complaining about the time of month. But we still need to find ways of enabling many men to express feelings and emotions beyond those fuelled by testosterone or alpha male competition if we are to address what appears to be a constant, if not growing problem in the male psyche. More diverse role models, full and meaningful employment, and age-friendly communities might also conceivably help...