Many men put pressure on themselves to hold things together and provide. Their perceived duty as a male is to support the ones they care about in every way, be it financially, physically, or mentally.
And yet, when it comes to taking care of their own health, it’s common for men to ignore themselves completely. But by putting their health aside, men are in greater danger of succumbing to a multitude of dangerous ailments.
The pressing question for loved ones and healthcare providers all over the world is simple: Why are so many men so stubborn about going to the doctor?
We at The Fem Word relate to this topic all too well. Co-founder Monika Samtani shared the story of her father, Dr. Vijay M. Varma, a world renowned Thyroid Nuclear Endocrinology physician. Although he took care of patients for over 50 years until he retired in 2019, he chose to ignore the severe arthritis he developed in his own body:
“At one point, his range of motion was impacted enough that he could barely move either of his arms,” Monika says. But, rather than treating his arthritis, her father took up a “grin and bear it” attitude, and slowly adapted to the pain rather than seeking treatment for the cause. It wasn’t until Monika and her mother insisted that he go to Physical Therapy…and he finally relented.
Dr. Varma’s tale is all too common and accurately reflects a statistic reported by tricitymed.org. According to consistently validated research, 20% of men will only see a doctor after being coerced by a loved one to do so.
This holds true even in cases of severe pain and suffering, or in instances like Dr. Varma’s, where the man’s mobility and quality of life are deeply affected by his illness. It seems irrational, and it goes against every natural instinct a person should have when it comes to treating pain and seeking care for themselves.
So, why do we see this phenomenon happening on such a huge scale?
A TOXIC TREND WITH DEEP CULTURAL ROOTS
It’s easy to blame toxic masculinity for this phenomenon. And while that’s somewhat true, the full situation tends to be much more complex.
Right from the start, it’s not uncommon to see that men are raised with the expectation that they will uphold particular “masculine” standards dictated by society. They are discouraged from seeking outside help because doing so is perceived as a display of weakness. A study conducted by the American Journal of Men’s Health (Am J Men’s Health) concluded that “from an early age, men receive direct and indirect messages about how they should think, feel, and behave… Avoiding doctors specifically is something that men not only encourage other men to do directly but also indirectly because it demonstrates how tough they are,” (emphasis mine).
Patrick Wenning, a Physical Therapist at Restore Motion, weighs in on the subject saying that “men seem to think that they can either take care of themselves or that medical problems will go away. I also think that they find navigating the medical field frustrating. And when a man gets frustrated, a typical reaction is to get mad and then to shut down.” Wenning makes a good point that society expects men to be self-sufficient.
Generally, women are taught that it’s okay to cry and express emotions, while men are expected to remain stoic and calm at all times. Vulnerability means a man is “not really a man,” and he’s at risk of ridicule, judgment, and rejection from other men and women. By growing up with the idea that showing any form of weakness is inherently bad, men learn to ignore their health for the sake of remaining “manly.”
The pressure only builds as men grow older and take on more responsibilities, particularly those pertaining to family finances. The same Am J Men’s Health study goes on to say that married men with families consider going to the doctor selfish because by taking time off to visit a doctor, they are “taking money away” from their family. Men “choose to put family financial needs above their own health concerns” in order to uphold their role of breadwinner.
The high cost of seeing a doctor under the American healthcare system, be it a General Practitioner or a mental health professional, is another factor that men cite as a reason to avoid getting help. For example, some healthcare professionals don’t accept private health insurance, and if out-of-network insurance isn’t accepted medical procedures can be very costly. There are practices that take out-of-network insurance or offer payment plans, but doing this research is time-consuming and it’s easy to give up. These are valid reasons why any person would avoid going to the doctor, but it’s especially demotivating for a man whose main concern is keeping their family’s finances afloat.
It sounds simpler to tough something out rather than taking the time and money to go to a doctor.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF AVOIDANCE ARE KILLING MEN
Men might think it’s no big deal to not see a doctor for little things like a cold or a mild ailment, but the broader repercussions of men’s avoidance of the doctor are genuinely life-threatening.
For example one of the most important tests for men, the yearly prostate exam, is a widely avoided appointment.
“Fear and dread of discomfort are two of the main reasons [why men] do not get screened,” Oncology Nursing News reports. The apparent indignity of this test is so engrained in male culture that it’s been made the butt of many jokes (no pun intended), but the punchline is far from funny. By making fun of prostate exams, they aren’t taken seriously –– and thousands of men die from prostate cancer that otherwise could have been treated and eliminated.
The Prostate Cancer Foundation states that “[p]rostate cancer…is almost 99% treatable if detected early,” which is why getting screened at the appropriate age is essential. But if men don’t feel comfortable having that conversation with their doctor, or worse, if they’re not even comfortable enough to go to the doctor to have this conversation, they put themselves at risk of dying for something that could have been avoided.
Men need to learn to take charge of their health in spite of their fears. As a society and as loved ones, we need to empower them to take charge of their health and address those fears with compassion and understanding. Feminists have long advocated for healthier, more accepting standards when it comes to health and wellness, and this includes the promotion of an environment that not only encourages but rewards men for taking care of themselves.
(Oh, and for the record: prostate cancer screening can also be done with a blood test, which is much less intimidating and by some accounts is less invasive than a routine rectal exam.)
A NOTE ON MENTAL HEALTHCARE
It’s worth mentioning another deadly diagnosis that men are used to avoiding: depression. By many accounts, this is also one of the deadliest illnesses men face. Suicide has consistently been one of the top ten leading causes of death for men of all ages, and it is the number two killer of men aged 20-44. These “deaths of despair” outnumber heart disease, cancer, and diabetes by a wide margin.
Mental health treatment is stigmatized because it falls under the category of “weakness” if men admit to needing it. Many men aren’t taught to even recognize their mental health needs in the first place.
Suicide isn’t the only risk, though it is arguably the most serious. When male depression goes unchecked there is a higher chance of self-medicating, and “they may turn to alcohol and other drugs as a way to numb the[ir] pain” says one healthline article. Combining depression and substance abuse devolves into a dangerous cycle that is challenging to break.
The deeper the cycle, the harder it is to ask for help. Men, please ask for help. It doesn’t make you weak. Your loved ones desperately want you to seek assistance, no matter how vulnerable it makes you feel. Let us help you before it’s too late.
HOW TO HELP MEN BREAK THE STIGMA: FIGHT FIRE WITH FIRE
So, how do we encourage men to take care of themselves?
It all starts with encouragement.
Dr. Varma would not have gotten help for his arthritis if not for Monika and the rest of his family’s insistence that he do so. “Men are reluctant to open up and even talk to their friends and family,” Dr. Varma says. “They think they have to be held to a higher standard and take care of the problem themselves.”
Monika didn’t give up on her father, and she kept pushing him to seek help; when he finally did, he quickly realized how much support came with his diagnosis and treatment. “Once you seek professional help, your life improves: and you can be better for not only yourself but for those around you.”
Stubborn sometimes need to be met with stubborn. You can’t force a loved one to get help, but if you don’t stop trying they’ll have a harder and harder time denying the problem.
Of course, it’s equally important to highlight compassion and understanding; men need to know that the healthcare community is a source of support and strength, not judgment. Creating a safe space for discussing physical and mental health for men starts with the ones closest to them. These loved ones are often women, but other men have a responsibility to encourage one another, too.
Patrick Wenning was taught as a child to respect the knowledge of medical professionals, “it was always encouraged by my family and that is probably the thing that shaped my attitude for the rest of my life.” This demonstrates that talking openly to children and young adults (regardless of their sex) about medical care has a positive impact that lasts a lifetime.
There is a long road ahead when it comes to breaking male conditioning, but changing the way men perceive healthcare shouldn’t be up to them alone. We can all do our part to shift the conversation toward a positive and open future.
Nobody should feel ashamed to go to the doctor, regardless of their gender. We all deserve to live our healthiest lives.
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