It’s fitting that Father’s Day falls in the middle of June. The annual holiday arrives this year on June 17, right in the middle of another yearly event: Men’s Health Month. Each June marks a month of increased conversation and focus around men’s health.
The occasion is used to single out health issues that men face and raise awareness for them. The campaign focuses on preventability, encouraging men to become more active in caring for themselves. (Studies suggest that men visit the doctor for prevention purposes half as much as women.) Prostate cancer is among the most popularly-discussed diseases during Men’s Health Month, in addition to issues like heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and sexually transmitted infections.
But a critical link in the campaign is missing. These issues (preventability, lack of awareness, and a reticence to take care of themselves) can usually be traced back to men’s mental health. Indeed, the John Wayne stoicism of old might not be front and center anymore, but it’s imprint is still left on men who are told to ‘man up’ or, worse yet, ‘stop acting like a girl.’
These phrases are weaponized by men against men to police masculinity, and the results are bleak. If you feel your manhood (and, thereby, your personhood) will be jeopardized if you speak up about a pain in your gut, chances are you might stay silent. The same goes for mental illnesses, perhaps more so: according to Mental Health America, over 6 million American men are affected by depression each year, but most cases will go undiagnosed.
This is where that culture of stoicism and enforced silence can turn lethal. Undiagnosed mental illness increases risk of suicide, which disproportionately affects young men. In 2010, 79% of Americans who died by suicide were men, with high rates of suicide occurring among marginalized groups including gay and bisexual men. In much the same way an unaddressed tumor can lead to an untimely death, so too can unaddressed mental illness result in suicide.
What this tells us is that the narrative around men’s health is shaped by a toxic shaming and subsequent internalization that, often, results in severe or terminal illnesses that could otherwise have been prevented. This suggests, then, that changing the culture could not only reduce rates of preventable illness in men, but could even reduce rates of preventable deaths.
So where does that change begin?
That might depend on the situation, but a key shift is to deconstruct the reductive masculinity that most North American men have been conditioned to accept as the norm. This includes being able to have open, empathetic, and sensitive conversations about health, and implementing workplace policy that doesn’t hamstring men, making them choose between an income or their health. All illnesses, including mental illnesses like depression, should be recognized as legitimate cause for sick leave, rather than met with scoffs and, ‘Why don’t you just suck it up?’
We need to encourage men to view their pain, bodily and mental, as serious, and deserving of attention and treatment. This goes hand-in-hand with legitimizing men’s health issues when they express them: if a man expresses discomfort or hurt, the appropriate response is not, ‘Quit whining.’ If these off-the-cuff responses continue, so too will heightened rates of undiagnosed illnesses, and higher rates of suicide, in men. Changing our language is one of the first steps to changing the culture around men’s health.
This Men’s Health Month, concentrate your efforts on changing how you think and speak about men’s illnesses, and not just the kinds that affect men below the shoulders. Practice empathy and kindness, and encourage your friends to do the same. This culture and preventability are correlated, so with a few small changes, we can make the positive spirit of Men’s Health Month a year-round phenomenon.