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It's time to talk about men's health

Wednesday 03 May 2017, 11:17AM
It's time to talk about men's health

Your typical Kiwi blokes are as likely to discuss their health issues over coffee as they are to suggest a trip to get their nails done. 

But with so many of the health issues plaguing men being potentially avoidable, it's time to get them talking, according to psychotherapist Ric Church. 

New Zealand males will spend hours talking about a rugby match or their new car but are hesitant to speak up about their health. 

"It's a part of the culture of not wanting to be vulnerable," says Mr Church, "they lean towards the protector-provider role and that means be strong, be stoic."

Mr Church is on something of a mission to help men to open up about their problems, having seen the life-changing benefits when they do.

He started Auckland-based MensTalk in 2001, which offers counselling services to men, as well as addiction and anger therapy. This was then followed by Talk Counselling in 2007, where he has opened his services to women. 

He believes the thought patterns in Kiwi men are deeply ingrained. "There is an underlying belief system around getting checked up and taking responsibility for their own health that means men tend to just 'put up with it.'" he says. 

This seems to be across both physical and mental health. Suicide rates among Kiwi men are at almost three times the rate of females, and one in eight men in New Zealand will suffer from depression at some point in their lives. 

"For blood pressure, cholesterol, prostate, long-term headaches, anything really…when you ask them how long they've been having trouble with it, the answer is often 'years,'" Mr Church says.

This tendency to grin and bear it may run deeper than just putting on a brave face. Mr Church says that men tend to think of the worst possible outcome and will use that as a reason not to get checked. 

"With prostate checking, for example, there's all this talk that it could lead to erectile dysfunction, and so much of a man's identity is associated with being able to perform," he says.  

Men's health advocate Jim Duthie also says this attitude is common. "It's like: 'I'm starting to get symptoms, but if I don't go to the doctor, he can't tell me I've got cancer, so I'll be okay,'" he says. 

Mr Duthie, who is a urologist and also holds a psychology degree, has become a passionate voice for several men's health campaigns, after seeing just how many of the cases out there are preventable. 

Mr Church says that for lifestyle related health issues, like high cholesterol or obesity, there's a lot of resistance to change, especially if it means being the first of your mates to bring it up. 

Another factor may be the female-oriented nature of the health system, especially pharmacies. "Going in to ask for advice isn't really encouraged for men," says Mr Church. "Where's the men's corner?" 

"It's really amazing when men do start talking," he says, "it means the belief systems can get ­challenged." 

So what can pharmacies do to appeal to men, and get the ball rolling on health-related chats? 


Breaking the silence

Mr Church and pharmacist Clive Cannons both have some ideas to make pharmacies more welcoming for men, and they don't include PlayStation corners.  

Mr Cannons, a self-professed typical bloke, has long been using his position as local pharmacist (or "Clive the Happy Chemist") to reach the men in his Wainuiomata community. 

As well as running blood pressure testing clinics for guys, he has hosted his own blokes' night, which he says was to make pharmacy more approachable for them. 

"It can be a real no-go zone for men, so we wanted to encourage husbands to come in; we had sampling, seminars and beer," he says. He hopes to run a bloke's night again for Men's Health Month coming up in June. 

"The main reason we go to the doctor is because our wives make us," he says, "otherwise it's just 'there's nothing wrong with me!'"

Mr Cannons' pharmacy, Clive's Chemist, is also a major sponsor of the local rugby and league clubs. "You've just got to get yourself out there, and earn people's trust," he says. "Now they know us and they feel comfortable to come in and chat, even to the female staff."

A section for men's health in the pharmacy would be ideal, according to Mr Church, but he says that even having relevant brochures around works well.

"Men love brochures," he says. "They can take them away and have a read in the privacy of their own home. Then they can decide if they want to do something about it."

"A how-to would also be good, a list of solutions so that they can take action," says Mr Church, and says that having phone numbers available and easily visible is important. 

He also highlights the importance of positive messaging, or "toward-to" motivation, rather than using fear, or "away-from" motivation, to encourage men to take responsibility for their health. 

"Rather than saying don't do this, you'll get sick and die," show men the positive outcomes of looking after their health," he says. "So show them the benefits down the line like medical cost-savings and healthy relationships."  

Above all, Mr Church believes that the key to getting men talking about their health is to normalise it, which is the focus of recent campaigns such as New Zealand Rugby's website, which aims to break down the stigma around mental illness. 

"We need to be saying 'this is what we do as men,'" he says, and explains that while this needs input from public figures and positive role models, pharmacies can play their part by spreading the message. 

Mr Cannons agrees: "We could be doing way more, right now we're just scratching the surface."

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