The quiet crisis of men's health
As a male who has been working with males for the better part of two decades, I’m very passionate about men’s health outcomes. Especially so in the light of current research that shows that even though Australian men’s overall life expectancy and health has improved substantially over the last five decades, men’s average life expectancy remains substantially lower than that of women.
We are more vulnerable to a variety of health problems and we are more susceptible to family stress and psychological problems throughout the lifespan, which is linked to poorer health outcomes. The main mental health problems that are leading causes of death and/or health burden for men in Australia include suicide, self-inflicted injuries, anxiety and depression.
Rural men at higher risk
The main group of men who demonstrate poorer health in Australia are those living in remote areas. This is reflected in both shorter life expectancies and poorer self-assessed health status. Males aged 45 to 65 years living in regional or remote areas are 1.2 times more likely to report high to very high levels of psychological distress and 1.4 times more likely to report depression than their urban counterparts. In addition, alcohol consumption, cigarette smoking, drink driving accidents, depression and suicide are all significantly higher among men in rural communities compared to those residing in urban locations.
This makes it even more important for those in rural areas to be able to access help. However, two important obstacles are location and our concept of ourselves as males, both of which conspire to prevent those of us who live in regional areas from getting much needed help.
In terms of access, there may be a lack of availability of services within the community, or it may be hard to get to or afford health services located in another town or region. Even when health services exist, sometimes there can be a reluctance to use them given the small tight knit nature of many smaller regional communicates which creates confidentiality concerns.
The second issue that often gets in the way is the concept of what it means to be male. We are conditioned to be “strong” and “powerful” and not to show weakness, a term known as Hegemonic Masculinity. The paradox with this is that this view of masculinity around display of power, actually weakens us in the long run. For example, many of the risk-taking behaviours (which males are more likely to do) that display power and strength, in the longer-term lead to powerlessness and poorer health outcomes. The classic case is men’s use and abuse of alcohol and other drugs. Heavy alcohol intake might demonstrate bodily power and superiority but in the long term it in fact weakens the body.
Another example is help-seeking behaviour. , which males are less likely to do than females. While in the short term it may show strength through greater self-reliance and independence, ultimately it weakens us by increasing our sense of isolation allowing problems to fester resulting in greater levels of depression, anxiety, suicide as well as drug and alcohol intake to mask symptoms. The consequences of not seeking treatment and poorer social networks is represented in the high prevalence of substance abuse and suicide, as well as aggression, violence and family breakdown among males. All these mental and social problems impact negatively on the lives of men, their partners, families and work.
How to move forward from this
Embrace our vulnerability
There is a gradual shift occurring, but we need to go further in terms of redefining what masculinity actually means. As males, we need to get better at connecting with our emotions, to be more conscious of our thoughts and feelings, because these are a window into what we need. We need to better embrace our vulnerability, to see that fear, anxiety and depression are signals that we need to make changes in our lives, rather than as markers of weakness. And there is still room for change in how we connect with others, both other men, family, intimate partners and others who may help us. Being able to be vulnerable with them, share our feelings and connect at a deeper level has been shown to increase feelings of connection and has a positive impact on mood and wellbeing.
Improve health outcomes through better access
The reason why I’m passionate about online counselling for regional communities is that it makes it easier to access professional help in a confidential way, therefore improves health outcomes for males living in regional areas .