Tuesday 24 September 2019

'Men die six years earlier for no physiological reason'

Today marks International Men's Day. Though some may scoff at the very concept, writes Caomhan Keane, when it comes to health and well-being, we have never needed it more

Pictured from left: Sam Donnelly, Sam's Barbers; John Connell, author and Movember ambassador; and Neil Rooney, Movember country director
Pictured from left: Sam Donnelly, Sam's Barbers; John Connell, author and Movember ambassador; and Neil Rooney, Movember country director

Caomhan Keane

Every single minute of every single day, a man dies by his own hand around the world. Almost eight in 10 suicides in Ireland are male.

The stats are alarming. In 2017 there was a 128pc increase in men attending face-to-face support groups hosted by BodyWhys, The Eating Disorders Association of Ireland, with a 41pc increase in email support requests, and a corresponding 10pc increase in helpline calls.

A staggering 70pc of men are overweight, one in four of who are obese. We are 26pc more likely to get cancer and 34pc more likely to die from it.

Today is International Men's Day. But as many a 'woke' mind taps out: 'Everyday is International Men's Day' on their keyboard - it's time to face up to the fact that - when it comes to health, it most certainly is not.

"Men die six years earlier for no physiological reason," says Neil Rooney, director of the Movember Foundation, whose singular goal is to stop men dying too young. "We present later with most illnesses, we die by greater numbers from suicide. There is a crisis in men's health and we don't know the reason.

"So we need to affect behavioural change. If we can find a way to get men to be open and honest about ourselves, we will see a reduction in that gap."

"When we started eight years ago here, awareness and funding of male cancers and mental health were critically low. As a result, men suffered and died in silence."

Movember gave them a platform to challenge outdated, toxic attitudes to masculinity and to give women who wanted a better, brighter future for the men in their lives something to rally around.

"The moustache is our pink ribbon. You wear it on your face and it's a great icebreaker. Someone takes the mickey out of you, you tell them why you are growing it and you get a conversation going. It's a Trojan horse to important questions."

Movember is currently helping fund research into whether exercise can be prescribed as a medicine to combat the overtreatment of prostate cancer with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and other approaches. "If you have your prostate removed you can have sexual or bowel dysfunction, which can lead to social isolation as men don't want to go out golfing with a colostomy bag. Sixty per cent of people surveyed admitted having mental health issues. So we are trying to discover better patient pathways."

Brian Herman received his diagnosis in 2006. "It was a little bit too far spread for a simple removal of the prostate," he says, "so I was put on a course of hormone therapy to bring it right down. I was on it for a further five years."

Hormone therapy can be effective in reducing the effects of prostate cancer; but once it goes beyond three years it could be counterproductive, raising your risk of heart failure and other adverse heart conditions.

"When I heard that at a conference, I realised I needed a second opinion on my treatment. I went to see another specialist who immediately took me off it."

Because of the hormone treatment, Herman became addicted to the sleeping pills he was taking to cope with insomnia, coupled with the drop in energy and short temper among its side effects. "Some foods I enjoyed developed a bitter taste, like beer. I sent so many pints back at my local, I eventually had to apologise and tell them it wasn't them, it was me," he laughs.

When he came off the treatment, his irritability subsided, his cholesterol came down and his energy levels returned. But his addiction to the pills remains.

"More men than women attend our support groups," says Brid O'Meara, director of services at Aware, a voluntary organisation that aims to help people with depression. "It's the one area men outnumber women.

"People don't talk to one another like they used to. Groups like this help tackle the isolation so many men feel."

"When you look at suicide, you see that the highest segment affected are men aged 45-50, whose social connectivity has broken down," says Rooney. "When you are young you have GAA, rugby and college to keep you connected to the world. But then you have a job, marriage, kids and your social life goes away.

"But sometimes, so too does your wife, your kids and your job. And you look around and you don't have anyone."

Depression

Ten years ago, at 38, Stephen Crowley was incapacitated by an injury at work, which left him physically agonised and mentally tortured. For 18 months, he was unable to kick a ball with his kids or interact regularly with other people. He had decided he couldn't take it anymore and had made plans to end his life when an occupational nurse picked up on his low mood and clocked what was on his mind.

"My family hadn't a clue what was going on," he says." They would have just known I was in physical pain. But they would be going to school and it was during those specific hours during the day when I was feeling most vulnerable. I knew they would be coming in from three o'clock. So from two o'clock I would brush myself off, get out of bed and wash. I never left a trail."

He felt emasculated by his depression. "A man is supposed to be strong and here I was in a situation where if you said 'boo' I would cry. It took away the manly part of me, I was very emotional and I didn't want people to see that side, that vulnerability."

"But I don't think it's manly to put on a brave face, I was always telling a joke, laughing, never letting on that I was in bits. It was such a huge effort. I was the most lonely person in the room."

He started facilitating Aware support groups eight years ago. "What we hear, week in, week out at these sessions is how quickly your thought process can spiral out of control. The negative thoughts are quite debilitating, 'I'm failing as a father/ a husband/ a man. It becomes a sort of white noise, in the background constantly, that wears you down.

"It's amazing how quickly the thought of taking your own life can make sense to you. It's only when someone verbalised it to me that it didn't fit right in my brain."

"It's still really difficult for men to acknowledge things themselves and to come forward," says Harriet Parsons, training and development manager with Bodywhys. "Not only do they have to get their head around a mental health illness, but they also have an illness that is often associated with women."

Bulimia

Aaron Smyth runs his own fitness business in Dublin and for five to six years suffered from non-purging bulimia - where you binge eat, then restrict yourself and/or over-exercise. "I started in the industry before social media was about and I was constantly told that 'your physique is your business card'".

His bulimia was always underlying, but his involvement in a toxic relationship and the pressure of setting up his own business accelerated it. "Being able to restrain myself, put myself through that hardship, it was the only thing I could be sure of".

"I would overeat to the point of being physically sick, then I would try to stay off food for as long as I could while hitting the gym for up to six hours a day."

Such is the stigma, Aaron was appearing on Newstalk to discuss it when he realised he still hadn't spoken to his family about it. "It's a hard thing to open up about as a bloke. I was struggling, but it's a very hard pill to swallow, accepting that you need help."

It's important that men get treatment for eating disorders as quickly as possible.

"Early intervention is critical," says Harriet. "The longer a person has an eating disorder, the harder it is for them to let go of it. It starts to take over their sense of self; they start to identify with it, and don't know who they would be without it."

"The really hard thing about recovery is that, with other illnesses, when someone gets better, they feel better. It doesn't happen like that with eating disorders. They actually feel worse, like they are letting themselves down, they are failing because they are not trying hard enough. All the time their mind is screaming at them to do the exact opposite."

There's a greater social acceptance for men to be overweight. Only three out of every ten men in the country are a healthy weight according to the Irish Heart Foundation. Stroke and heart disease remain the leading cause of death here and men are three times more likely to die early of both.

Domestic Abuse

Conversations stirred by the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement may have contributed to the number of men coming forward with their own stories to Amen - the only dedicated support service for male victims of domestic abuse in Ireland.

"We have had an increase of 30pc of men using our service between 2016 and 2017," says Andrea McDermott, a caseworker for Amen. "But men have always suffered from domestic abuse and this increase could be because more men feel they can now come forward and speak about this."

Despite this, there is still a belief that men cannot suffer from sexual abuse from their female partners. "I have worked with many men who have been and are still being sexually abused."

This abuse ranges from having objects used on them, being forced to take Viagra, being raped and called derogatory names if they cannot perform.

"Where issues of consent are widely discussed in relation to women they should also be discussed within the male population."

There is a huge disparity between the support available for men and for women. "Where separation and leaving the home might be an option for a few men, many are forced to remain in an abusive home and dangerous situations as they have nowhere to go."

There are currently no refuges in Ireland where male victims of domestic abuse can take their children along with them.

"More funding is required to build awareness. Mankind, our counterpart organisation in the UK have just released their figures for 2016/17 and they report one in three adults suffering domestic abuse will be a man. This is due to destigmatising domestic abuse for men. Creating awareness, increased support and education in this area is vital," says McDermott

Information station

* For more information visit cancer.ie or contact the cancer nurseline on freephone 1800 200 700, email cancernurseline@irishcancer.ie

* Movember partners with the Irish Cancer Society and are the primary contributor to their prostate cancer programmes. Funds help provide information, support and care to those affected by prostate cancer, as well as funding vital cancer research.

movember.com

* Aware support and self-care groups offer a unique opportunity to talk openly check out aware.ie

* Amen.ie offers helpline support and face-to-face supports to victims.

* The Eating Disorders Association of Ireland helpline is 1890 200 444. bodywhys.ie

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