We’ve all been there. Woken up and felt a twinge in our shoulder, or inexplicably had a particularly bad headache. But when it comes to dealing with health problems, men seem to be firmly placed in one of two camps.
Either we immediately believe that we’ve managed to contract some exotic illness, panic, and and make plans in advance to head to a drop-in clinic for a second opinion after visiting our local GP – or we grimace through the pain, reach for the paracetamol and soldier on through our day.
This latter turn of events is by far the most common, and at this weekend’s Being a Man festival at London’s Southbank Centre, a panel of healthcare experts staged a frank discussion about men and their aversion to seeking medical help.
John Chisholm, Chair of the British Medical Association’s Ethics Committee, believes that British ‘stiff upper lip’ society has bred generations of men who believe that accepting you need help is to somehow surrender your masculinity.
“There is a cultural understanding that all men should be macho,” says the doctor. “But we need to understand that this expectation of stoic masculinity is putting lives at risks – men shouldn’t be bottling these things up.”
Jim Pollard, a health journalist also sitting on the panel, agreed. “Absolutely. The real reason men put off going to see their doctor is because we don’t like asking for help.”
“We find it hard to admit that we need help,” Pollard continues. “We are absolutely rubbish when it comes to admitting that. And I think that men find it very difficult to overcome this expectation of self-reliance and resilience because it has been drilled into us from a very young age.”
The healthcare experts cite some shocking statistics. Because many men never flag up their health concerns until it may be too late, one in five British males don’t live past the age of 65. But if this problem is so ingrained into our culture and societal expectations, is there any way we can realistically hope to change men’s attitudes towards medical assistance?
“There are certain steps that need to be taken,” offers Chisholm. “If we destigmatise ‘men seeking help’ from an early age, it will become more accepted, something men are allowed to talk about. Because at the moment that discussion simply isn’t being had with young boys.”
When should I see a doctor?
However, Doctor Jane Dickson, a consultant in sexual and reproductive health at Oxleas NHS Trust, believes that women and men are simply wired differently, and that what works for one gender may not necessarily be as effective for the other.
“At my clinic, female patients outnumber male four to one,” reveals Dickson. “The only time when we see an equal amount of men and women is on a Saturday, when the majority of men don’t have an excuse not to come in – we’re not competing with busy work schedules on the weekend, perhaps only the football. And even then when they come in, they lie about what the problem is.
“It’s amazing how many men with sore shoulders come in who, at the end of the consultation when they have their hand on the door, turn around and choose then to tell me about their funny-coloured discharge or scrotal warts. The problem with this inability to tell me what’s wrong immediately is that we’re wasting time, because these issues that men are merrily ignoring out of embarrassment could be early signs of major conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease.”
Overall, we know that men seeking help for medical issues desperately needs destigmatising. But because we’re living in an age where there’s more ways to talk to each other and interact than ever before, we’ve taken advantage of this to create an anonymous system that allows men, who may otherwise stay silent, to share their concerns.