How do men do health? How do we think about and act on our health? In what ways is men’s health stigmatized? These are the types of questions raised by a network of researchers who make up the Men’s Health Research group, based at the University of British Columbia, Canada. I had the pleasure of attending a few of their events last month in Ottawa, our nation’s capital, as part of a week-long awareness campaign the network ran on men’s health. I came away with a newfound appreciation for the stigma around men’s health and how dominant perceptions of maleness can keep men from taking care of themselves.
The suite of projects orchestrated by the Men’s Health Research group is stunning. Funded by the Movember Foundation, among others, they take creative approaches like theatre and photography to tackle big issues, such as men’s depression and suicide, veterans returning home after living through the trauma of war, men in rural and remote areas where there are fewer resources and many other vulnerable groups of men. My personal favorite is the DUDES Club project, working with men who live in downtown Eastside Vancouver—a neighborhood that has gained notoriety for its extreme rates of crime, poverty, homelessness and drug abuse. DUDES is an acronym standing for Downtown Urban Knights Defending Equality and Solidarity, a fitting title created to challenge the narrative of the Vancouver neighborhood as a place of perpetual violence and isolation.
At the helm of the network is Dr. John Oliffe, a distinguished professor of nursing at the University of British Columbia. I spoke with him a little during his skips from one event to another. He noted how his focus on masculinities as they relate to health keeps him caught in the middle of different, although related, conversations: “Some people say we’re doing health research, some say we’re doing masculinity research.” He says they’re basically doing both, insofar as health and illness experiences can be strongly gendered. Men’s expression of depression, for example, may come out in more indirect or covert ways than for women. This is due, in part, to the stigmatization of men’s mental health and to dominant narratives of masculinity that pressure men to conceal their emotions, as observed in the rich work of Dr. Oliffe and his colleagues. Men are taught to be stoic, keep quiet about their distress and internalize responsibility to deal with it by themselves. Not being permitted to show their vulnerability can make men feel even more futile and helpless against mental illness.
The Men’s Health Research network is not about convincing the world that men need more help than women; they are not the trolling kind who redirect social justice and gender equality efforts to maintain male privilege. Instead, they identify the harmful, oppressive effects that hegemonic masculinity can have on both men and women.
During his talk on men’s suicide, Dr. Oliffe said, “Doing men’s health is doing women’s health, and doing family health.” His colleague, Dr. Joan Bottorff, another power player at UBC’s School of Nursing, demonstrated this ripple effect in her presentation on women who have lost a man to suicide. They found that many women berated themselves for not living up to the gendered ideal of the female caregiver, who is supposed to be tuned in to the feelings of those around her and is heroic in her capacity to intervene and rehabilitate. No matter the story leading up to the suicide—whether women saw it as an unexpected event or the tragic finale to a long period of visible suffering—they felt a deep sense of guilt for not doing enough to secure their loved one’s survival. They were caught up in the dominant narrative that men can’t care for themselves—they’re tenaciously ignorant of their health and lack the emotionally laden words to speak about depression—and so it is up to the women in their lives to ensure they get the help they need but can’t ask for.
The gendering of health, especially mental health, impacts both men and women in profound ways. Undoing the stigma around men’s health, and in particular, undoing the hold oppressive forms of masculinity have on men with health issues, is also a way of reducing the loads placed upon women to feel responsible for their men’s health. This vision was beautifully expressed by the feminist author Bell Hooks in her book The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love:
“Women have believed that we could save the men in our lives by giving them love, that this love would serve as the cure for all the wounds inflicted by toxic assaults on their emotional systems, by the emotional heart attacks they undergo every day… Our love helps, but it alone does not save boys or men. Ultimately boys and men save themselves when they learn the art of loving.”
This is the key lesson I took away from the Men’s Health Research events: one way toward better health, for men and for women, may be to provide men with the tools to speak from the heart. It is not acceptable to expect women to translate men’s subtle mannerisms into emotional thought bubbles; men need to do the work of unlearning gender, at least the segments of gender that close off the heart and keep it at a distance. From there, men can learn better ways of doing health: ways that free them from their silos of suffering; ways that enable them to not only receive love but also show it back; ways that frame vulnerability as a vehicle toward equality and solidarity.
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