Gender roles and men’s health—what are we neglecting?

Risk-taking is seen as a desirable male trait by society and often predisposes men to high-risk behaviour
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Men’s health as a subject has not received adequate attention when it comes to policy making or in media campaigns. Gender equality approach in healthcare has largely focussed on issues related to women’s health. It is known that men are four times more likely to commit suicide, more prone to substance abuse, and are more likely to die younger than women. Though there may be some biological reasons for the increased prevalence and morbidity of certain diseases in men, many of these disparities arise from social factors related to gender roles.

One of the most important factors associated with gender inequality, which concerns men is ‘masculinity’, which is a typical gender stereotype. This can have negative impacts on men’s health, primarily because of increased risk-taking. Risk-taking is seen as a desirable male trait by society and often predisposes men to high-risk behaviour like rash driving, and flouting of road safety norms making them more prone to traffic accidents. Substance abuse, smoking, and increased alcohol consumption also result in part from this risk-taking trait. Sometimes, this risk-taking results from social pressure and is seen as necessary behaviour to step up the social ladder.

Being ‘masculine’ and ‘strong’ means that men often ignore symptoms of serious diseases like heart disease, depression etc

Another society-ingrained gender role which men traditionally assume is being the provider for the family. This leads to a work-leisure imbalance with earning money being seen as a primary goal for men which is expected to supersede any other activity. Long hours at work, inadequate rest and sleep, missed meals and poor nutrition are ‘normalized’ as part of being a man.

All of these factors have negative health consequences with increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and mental health disorders. Increased perceived need for ‘providing for the family’ is also one of the reasons for higher rates of suicide in men.

Being ‘masculine’ and ‘strong’ means that men often ignore symptoms of serious diseases like heart disease, depression etc, and also are in denial when these disorders are diagnosed. This leads to hesitancy in seeking health care and delays in diagnosis of serious disorders.

The problem is especially pronounced in the case of seeking advice for mental health disorders as acknowledging these conditions is perceived as being weak and ‘unmanly’.

Sexual disorders like problems in libido and erectile function are again considered taboo as these are perceived as a loss of masculinity. This leads to delay in treatment and over-the-counter remedies which may be harmful or untested. Lack of self-esteem and feeling of worthlessness, which occurs as a result of these disorders can further lead to anxiety and mental health problems.

In view of the above, health systems and health care facilities need to be sensitised towards gender roles and men’s health. Health messages towards healthy lifestyle behaviour need to be tailored keeping in mind men’s perceived needs and gender roles.  Health messaging could involve focussed messages about men’s health like prostate cancer screening, heart check-ups or awareness about mental health disorders and sexual disorders.

Advertising attempts should address some of the gender stereotypes. Finally, a more rational work ethic which at least attempts to maintain a work-home/leisure balance for men could actually be very effective in promoting men’s health.

Edited by Diya Koshy George

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)