Saturday 24 August 2019

It's not easy being a man - but health campaign aims to cut six-year life gap

Movember grew from a bristly upper lip and is now determined to increase male longevity, writes Joy Orpen

MAKING MEN HEALTHIER: Neil Rooney, of the Movember Foundation, a global organisation that focuses on men’s mental and physical health issues. Photo: Tony Gavin
MAKING MEN HEALTHIER: Neil Rooney, of the Movember Foundation, a global organisation that focuses on men’s mental and physical health issues. Photo: Tony Gavin

Joy Orpen

Men's health is in crisis. Every week, on average, approximately 10 people in Ireland die from suicide. Of these, the greater proportion are men.

Globally, men die six years earlier than their female counterparts; in Ireland the gap is slightly less. Men are 36pc more likely to die from cancer than women.

More men die of prostate cancer than do women from breast cancer. Yet the Pink Ribbon movement is now an incredibly well supported national institution in Ireland, while prostate cancer remains the poor relation, getting little attention or support.

What is going on?

According to many of those who deal with physical and mental health issues, men, for a variety of reasons, are reluctant to open up about their problems or to seek the help they so desperately need. This is especially true of middle-aged men.

"People think most suicides involve younger people, but this is not usually the case," says Neil Rooney, of the Movember Foundation, a global organisation which focuses on men's mental and physical health issues.

"Of the 10 suicides each week in Ireland, eight are men, with the most at risk being those aged between 45 and 52 years. That's the real danger zone. When you're young, you have great social connectivity. You're playing GAA, you're at college, you have an active social life. Then you get married, your job takes up a lot of time and you have kids to look after. However, in middle age, relationships and jobs can fall apart. But you've been too busy to spend time with friends, so now, you're left feeling isolated."

Neil says that sense of loneliness may be compounded by traditional role playing. "Some men feel they are supposed to be stoic, that they have to be 'manly' and show no weakness, no matter what. So, a change in circumstances, can lead to poor mental health. Symptoms can include sleeplessness, stress, anxiety, drink and drug abuse, and isolation. Neglecting mental health issues can have even more serious consequences, including suicide. One of our main functions is to encourage men to 'get active'. Being part of a sports team, a walking group or a Men's Shed, can give them a sense that they are not alone."

Oliver Skehan, of the Samaritans, agrees wholeheartedly. "The main issues across the board are isolation, loneliness, money worries and family concerns. Rural men are particularly susceptible. The Movember campaign encourages men to stay in touch with friends, and to talk openly about what's going on in their lives. Talking can literally be a life-saver. Men often don't want to burden those closest to them, as they can feel ashamed or embarrassed. It's often easier for them to talk to a stranger, and that's where Samaritans come in."

Brid O'Meara, director of services at Aware, says they have noticed a shift in how men in crisis perceive the supports available to them. "We would encourage any man who is concerned about his mental health, to reach out and to accept help. It's a real [sign of] strength to speak out and tell someone that you are not feeling well and need help."

As far as physical health is concerned, the Irish Cancer Society (ICS) says more than 11,000 men are diagnosed with cancer every year. Shockingly, rates are 26pc higher for men than women. Even more alarming is the fact that men are 36pc more likely to die from cancer than women. Excluding non-melanoma skin cancer, prostate and colorectal/bowel cancers are the most common forms of cancer in men, while lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in men (1,175 annually).

According to Kevin O'Hagan, cancer prevention manager at the ICS, men are "quite passive" when it comes to seeking out information about their health. He says his organisation is looking at ways to address this. "We need to look at how we are presenting information to them. We need to avoid being too technical; we need to use humour, to offer hope, and to let them know, that it is perfectly normal to be engaging in discussions about their health. We also need to encourage health professionals to make a special effort to take the time to talk to men; to provide clear, direct information and not to rush them out the door. We need to make health information more accessible to men, and to engage with them in places where they congregate, such as at work or sports venues. Cancer survival rates are vastly improved these days, so it's really important we get that positive message across to men, rather than judging and warning them."

Kevin says the ICS has teamed up with the Movember Foundation to provide two specialist nurses for prostate cancer patients in Galway and Dublin. Neil Rooney confirms this, saying: "They are there to help the patients through their prostate cancer journey. Nothing like this existed before. Two nurses to look after the thousands and thousands of men living with prostate cancer? There should be one in every hospital treating cancer patients."

Movember is the most active force in this country when it comes to tackling these deeply troubling men's issues. It's an international body which sprang to life in Melbourne, Australia, in 2003, when two beer-sipping friends challenged 30 friends to grow moustaches over a 30-day period. That generated so much interest, they repeated the exercise the next year and that's when they started raising funds for men's health issues. So far 5.5m people in 22 countries, including Ireland, New Zealand, the UK, the USA and Australia, have signed up for Movember.

Each of the countries where Movember operates contributes a portion of its funds to the Foundation's GAP initiatives. These bring together collaborative teams of researchers from around the world to address key issues affecting men with prostate and testicular cancer. According to Neil: "Certain cases of this cancer will require immediate surgery, while other, less aggressive, cases may benefit from lifestyle changes. One of the collaborative teams on GAP 4, which is looking to prove that exercise acts as a medicine that delays prostate cancer progression, is led by Dr Stephen Finn, of Trinity College Dublin."

They plan to raise awareness about testicular cancer, which mainly affects young men. "If you catch it early, you have a 95pc chance of survival. It's all down to men examining themselves on a regular basis and not ignoring the symptoms," says Neil.

They're also encouraging men to sit "shoulder to shoulder" and to talk to each other - especially farmers, who can be particularly isolated. "We are encouraging them to congregate and if that means in a bar while watching a match, then so be it. We definitely do not want them drinking to excess, or drink-driving. We want them to take turns and nominate a driver, walk, or organise a bus or taxi."

Movember is also recommending Men's Sheds. "It's the one place we know where men will definitely encourage each other. But it's not the only way. They can go fishing, or hiking or join a choir."

Movember's goals are to reduce that six-year gap in life expectancy to three years. They want to halve the number of deaths by testicular and prostate cancer and to reduce the number of suicides by 25pc. These realistic goals could be achieved by 2030. But they will only happen if members of the public get involved.

The Movember Foundation is the only global charity focused solely on men's health. It raises funds to deliver innovative, breakthrough research and support programmes that enable men to live happier, healthier and longer lives.

Many Irish men are supporting Movember by growing a moustache until the end of the month. There are also a number of other fundraising options. To sign up, to make a donation, or to find out more about the Movember Foundation see

To contact the Samaritans, phone 116 123

Sunday Independent

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