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Science

International Men's Day: We need to 'free the man and make him more emancipated'

Men are "trapped in a cage" that stops them from facing up to health issues, says an organizer of this year's International Men's Day. In our Twitter poll, many of you agree: Men's health issues get overlooked.

It seems almost churlish to talk up International Men's Day - a day that aims to raise awareness of, among other things, men's health issues - when so many inequalities remain between the sexes and allow us (we, the male of the species) to appear so strong.

But, in fact, today serves as a perfect reminder of just how ridiculous we can be.

Boys don't cry. Boys don't hurt. We don't visit doctors, we are the doctors.

Or so we like to think.

And that is our very undoing. Really. We die, on average, younger than women. And often it's our own fault.

"Too often we believe men should be out there fighting, and we need to try to free the man, to make the man more emancipated," says Dr. Jerome Teelucksingh, founder of International Men's Day and history lecturer at the University of the West Indies. "We have him there in a cage, and we are constantly feeding him stereotypes - negative notions of masculinity."

As a result, we men tend to see our bodies differently from how women do. Dr. Tobias Engl, a men's health specialist and advisor to the German Foundation for Man and Health (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Mann und Gesundheit), says men live unhealthier lives than women, and we are less likely to take preventative care.

"For men, the body just has to work, and when it stops working, it needs repairing. It's a very technical approach to health," says Engl. "Men treat their bodies the same as they treat their cars."

So let's take this opportunity to look at some of men's health issues in detail.

Man vs. Man

To sort of paraphrase US President Franklin D. Roosevelt: The only thing men have to fear is men themselves.

It's a simple fact that men do not go to the doctor as often as women. Even without that comparative factor, we just don't look after ourselves enough.

Men, say Teelucksingh and Engl, are often exposed to high levels of stress, alcohol and drug addiction as well as mental health problems.

But we're either less likely to be aware of these risks or respond to the symptoms when they arise. And that goes for men globally - in developed countries as well as less developed ones.

What are the biggest health threats?

One of the biggest threats we face is a history, a cultural attitude, that dictates men have to be tough (or pretend to be).

"It could be either something historical [or] social, the way we socialize our boys throughout the world," says Teelucksingh, who adds that this process has been going on for centuries.

As for the biggest health threats, there are the obvious killers. In no particular order:

  1. Stress and dangerous work environments
  2. Prostate cancer
  3. Diabetes
  4. Heart attacks
  5. Road accidents
  6. Illnesses related to smoking
  7. Drug and alcohol addiction
  8. Bad nutritional habits

Do these health issues get overlooked?

Granted, it's less than scientific, but we asked @dw_scitech followers on Twitter to tell us whether men's health issues get overlooked. And a majority say "yes."

But around a quarter of those who responded say "no." It would be interesting to know how many respondents were men - and a whole load of other metrics - but it's an indication of sorts.

Personal hygiene

The whole point of a day like this is not just to whinge about how poor we men are - especially if we're lucky enough to live in a rich, developed country - but also to act and change our behavior.

And this one's easy, boys.

Wash your hands properly, and more often - not just on World Toilet Day (which happens to be today as well).

Take it from an agnostic neurotic like me: cleanliness is next to… the best thing we have here on Earth.

Going to the toilet, failing to wash your hands and then dipping your fingers into the office cookie jar is not cool. And it's certainly not hygienic - for you or for others.

So wash those grubby little mits!

Clean water and sanitation

My reference to living in rich countries was no flippant remark. There are many countries that still lack sufficient clean water and sanitation. This is a travesty. It has a major impact on the health of all people - men and women, boys and girls.

"Not having clean drinking water or adequate sanitation often leads to complications with diseases," says Teelucksingh.

We need to fix this. Perhaps some of the toughest men among us could help set this in motion.

Global health divide

The issue of access extends itself to access to healthcare in less developed countries. That is, countries in which men and women have little or no access to healthcare professionals and the services to take preventative measures, get advice or medicine, and other medical care. In some cases, care may be available, but people can't afford to access it.

Then there are differences in the types of health risks we face globally.

"African-Americans are most at risk of developing prostate cancer, whereas in Asian countries that risk is lower, which can have something to do with nutritional habits," says Engl. "But generally speaking, prostate cancer is a significant threat for men."

Boys do cry…

… it's just that their tears are invisible. By default. It stands to reason: imagine a platoon of soldiers standing on the battlefield weeping. That wouldn't do, would it?

"Look at the wars we had in the 20th Century - World War One and Two, the Vietnam War - in all these wars, the majority of soldiers were men," says Teelucksingh.

The problem is more and more soldiers - be they men or women - return from war suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Even the "normals" among us - if indeed such a person exists - suffer mental issues. But as men we either don't know it, or we lack the courage to own up to it. It takes real strength to admit you can't cope, that you're dealing with depression, or worse.

But because many of us lack real strength, the number of suicides among men is shockingly high. We would rather snap than ask for help - and that's just plain stupid. It's time to step up alone out of self-respect.

Life expectancy

The other point here is that globally, men die younger than women. But we could do something about it. No, I'm not suggesting we make women die earlier, but perhaps we could live longer and in harmony with the other sex(es).

In Germany, men die on average between five and seven years earlier than women at about 77.7 years of age. In some less developed countries, men are dying as young as 50.

Solution: Take better care of ourselves where we can, and improve access to medical care for those who lack it right now.

The (failed) emancipation of man

When it comes to health issues, men are far less emancipated than women. That's a fact. And it's our own fault. You often hear how women try to get us to change - and go see a doctor - but we stubbornly refuse. Perhaps it's another form of sexism on our part? Either way, we all lose out.

"Women are different," says Engl, "not least because of the pill, they have an early relationship with their gynecologist. But also preventative care is more of an obvious thing for women to do than it is for men."

So what do we do? "Getting in touch with our inner woman" won't cut it. And it's unhelpful to reduce the issue of men's health to one divided between the sexes.

Perhaps we could start by accepting the fragility of our existence, find strength in our weaknesses, and above all: Just go see a doctor!

I've heard it can be quite fun.

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