Eric Cui Wu
Health & Social Affairs Analyst
The Gender Gap in Men: Social Perceptions and its Effect on the Physical and Mental Health of Men
Equality to access does not mean equality in outcome. That is something that we can profoundly see through the healthcare system. In the European Union, men and women theoretically have the same access to the medical system. Therefore, they should have the same quality of care and outcome when controlling for socioeconomic differences.
Nevertheless, the average life expectancy for men in the European Union is 5.5 years less than women.¹ If we were to ask the public why men have shorter life expectancies compared to women, chances are the most common explanation is that men are more likely to partake in riskier behaviours. While it is true that in general, men are more likely to drink, smoke, have unhealthier diets, and participate in violent actions; all of which affect one’s chances of mortality; it does not fully explain all the differences we see in the healthcare outcome of men and women.² ⁻ ³. There must be some underlining reasoning behind why 75% of all alcohol-related deaths occur in men.⁴ We need to begin to uncover other possible reasons behind why men are more likely to act a certain way and how that affects their relationship with their health.
Going back for generations, cultural expectations of gender roles have continued to shape and dictate the behaviour of men and women. These traditional gender roles still influence our media and culture in the modern era, especially with the rise of hypersexualised social media. Men are told from a very young age to conform to certain ideals of power and strength. These definitions of masculinity are often very strongly tied culturally to one’s own identity and can play a large part in how society perceives their self-worth as a man.⁵ Men are often told not to show emotion and instead be strong, stand up, and fight for themselves continuously… To be a man. This idea that men are unemotional is widespread in media, even with a song from The Cure called “Boys Don’t Cry”. When we tell men to be emotionless, to behave a certain way, we are really setting up some men for failure to not achieve this idealistic masculinity set up by social and political expectations.⁶ False normalities plague the modern media, setting continuously unrealistic expectations of what a normal man’s life is.
Society dictates how a man acts, thinks, looks and responds to the community. This constant pressure can help to explain why men are more likely to take up risky behaviours, as they need a release from societies expectations. However, the impact of these social perceptions does not stop there. How can we expect men to work through their vulnerabilities and behaviours while chastising them for speaking out about their emotions? Ultimately, current societal expectations of masculinity and men detriments men’s physical and mental health; and can help explain some of the reasoning behind why men behave in a certain way.
As we delve deeper into the reasoning behind the gender gap, we can see the effect that the societal ideal of masculinity has on sickness in men’s physical health.
On average, men between the ages of 16 and 60 are less likely to consult a healthcare provider than their female counterparts.⁷ This delay in the timing in which men are unlikely to seek treatment can increase their severe injury and illness risk. In the long run, this reluctance leads to preventable diseases, such as melanomas, where men are 50% more likely to die than women.⁸ This increase in preventable diseases also leads to a general rise in deaths in men, ultimately contributing to the 86% of all male deaths attributed to non-communicable diseases and injuries.⁹ Men are disproportionately affected simply because of the hesitation to seek out help. This hesitation stems from societal perceptions we tell men to power through and toughen up instead of asking for help when they medically require it. These social perceptions of the right way masculine men should act ultimately cause a detriment to the level of preventative care that men partake.
This perception of male strength trickles down to how men intake and interact with medical information. Men are less likely to consult advice from media and their peers and are more likely to pretend that their physical health is normal. Furthermore, because men often dominate the medical field, they are less likely to create and disseminate men’s sexual health information to other men as well.⁸ Men are also generally less likely to seek out medical information independently, despite the multitude of available sources.¹⁰ There are many different layers of complexity to publicising medical advice to men, but underlining it is the perception of masculinity and the strong, independent man. This narrative that seeking help is unmasculine has dampened the willingness of men to receive proper medical guidance. This unwillingness eventually cycles back into men’s health, negatively impacting their physical health in the long term.
An essential counterpart to the physical health of men is the mental impact that perceptions of masculinity can have. Like women, men can and commonly do have body confidence issues and suffer from mental illness. One in five adult males in the UK surveyed has negative perceptions of their body image, with one in having been diagnosed with at least one mental illness.¹¹ The idolisation of unattainable and often unhealthy perceptions of health and the human body in modern media has continued¹² to contribute to the increasing negative self-perceptions of men. As media and companies focus on body positivity in women, there is a marked need for increased attention and men’s inclusivity and body positivity.
Internationally across the board, more men die from suicide than females, often at drastically higher rates.¹³ Nearly every three in four suicide victims in the European Union are male.¹⁴ Many factors can contribute to the higher suicide rate in men, including that men are more likely to commit suicide using deadlier methods. However, one such crucial underlining factor is the unwillingness of many men to discuss their mental health with friends, family and health professionals.⁸ Many societies push their men to be strong and to bottle up their emotions. In a survey conducted by Generation Maastricht of its male volunteers, there was a strong indication across the board that men are less comfortable talking about their mental health to family, friends and medical professionals when compared to their physical health. There is a disproportionate number of men using mental health services compared to women.¹⁵ We say to young children; boys do not cry; men are not supposed to be vulnerable. Be strong and get through it. However, society still wonders why men are less likely to discuss their feelings and more likely to be dependent on alcohol and drugs than women.
Today, it is generally more accepted in many societies if we choose to break away from traditional gender normalities. Expressing your identity, personality and sexuality in ways that do not traditionally conform to preconceived gender roles has been liberating for many. Yet, we still have lingering ideals of masculinity, especially hypermasculinity, which affect many men, cis-gendered and transgender, within the LGBTQIA+ community. It is essential to consider that sexuality is just as important as gender and sex when considering comfort in discussing men’s health. Many LGBTQIA+ men can struggle with openly discussing their sexuality with health professionals. One in five LGBTQIA+ individuals, rising to 40% in bisexual men, are not out to their health professional. One in seven have avoided treatment for fear of discrimination.¹⁶ It may be tough to gauge the openness of health professionals when speaking to them; as such, some may feel compelled to hide what is considered crucial medical information when considering the risks for certain diseases.
A lack of openness among all men in discussing sexuality in society also negatively affects the mental health of LBGTQIA+ men, with one in two LGBTQIA+ individuals currently diagnosed with a mental illness and nearly half of individuals identifying as transgender having contemplated suicide before.¹⁶ Many of these individuals can feel isolated due to traditional normalities of what men should act like, often putting on a mask and hiding from society. Gay men are three times more likely to have depression when compared to the general population and are at a much higher risk for suicide.¹⁷ With 2.9% of adult males openly identifying as gay or bisexual, and a steady rise in the LGBTQIA+ population, it is increasingly essential to consider the needs of queer and transgender men in the picture when we consider men’s physical and mental health.¹⁸ By opening the conversation to include not only heterosexual, cisgender men, we can benefit from the increased shared acceptance and understanding of different expressions of men and masculinity, creating a more welcome environment for all men.
Writing this as a cisgender male, I realise that many of these problems we face in society are so engrained that simply knowing and recognising them does not do enough. Even though I know men should be reaching out for help, I still feel uncomfortable discussing physical and mental health issues. I recognise I have been more likely to dismiss smaller sickness and physical ailments, to the point where they may be affecting my overall physical health. Still, I continue to choose to simply power through it because it feels more comfortable. These gender normalities that have been drilled in my psyche since youth are so ingrained that it takes a lot of work and effort to push against and combat them. And that’s part of the problem; reversing generations of thought and ideas takes an insurmountable amount of time and effort and is a continuous uphill battle. But it is a battle that we must continue to fight for generations to come.
In the end, many other factors ultimately affect men’s healthcare outcomes as well, but this does not mean that we cannot begin to change the narrative. As modern society continues to tackle many traditional societal normalities, the growth in openness to discuss men’s health must continue. Young boys need to be taught to be open with their feelings. Men should feel comfortable discussing their physical and mental health and not feel shamed into silence and self-loathing. The conversation around masculinity and the role of men should change to be more open and accepting of different perspectives. There needs to be continued efforts to improve gender equality in healthcare for both men and women.¹⁹ This improvement also means including women, minorities and LGBTQIA+ individuals in the conversation about men’s health and making sure that men feel comfortable reaching out for help. In the end, healthcare needs to have both equal access and equitable outcome. The methods in which we derive that equitable outcome has yet to be developed. And maybe, one day, the gender gap will simply be a page in the history books.
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 Mental Health Foundation. (2021). ‘Millions of men in the UK affected by body image issues – Mental Health Foundation survey’, Mental Health Foundation, Available at: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/news/millions-men-uk-affected-body-image-issues-mental-health-foundation-survey (Accessed: 21 July 2021).
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 Chatmon, B.N. (2020) ‘Males and Mental Health Stigma’, American Journal of Men’s Health, 14(4), doi: 10.1177/1557988320949322.
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 Lee. C. Oliffe, J.L., Kelly, M.T., et al. (2017) ‘Depression and Suicidality in Gay Men: Implications for Health Care Providers’, American Journal of Men’s Health, 11(4), pp. 910-919. doi: 10.1177/1557988316685492.
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