My father belonged to the old school, stiff upper lip brigade of men who ‘never complained, never explained’. I think it killed him. He went from being a hale countryman who walked the entire cliff paths of Cornwall one year to a frail heavy-breather who couldn’t make it up a slight incline without pausing for puff. He was told he needed a heart bypass. His typical reaction was to wait until his operation number came up on the NHS rather than to make a fuss or use the private insurance policy than came with his pension. Perhaps he also feared the surgery. Either way, his life ended in a massive small hours heart attack some 15 years before it should have done. I will never know the full story because in the 12 hours before he died he was unable to speak.
I am therefore especially glad to hear of a new initiative from health managers and planners to erect Men’s Health Clinics in the grounds of major football clubs in order to persuade all of us that it is manly to look after our health. The argument goes that if it’s good enough for a successful footballer, it will be good enough for the chap on the terraces. It is reported that Manchester City will be opening the first men’s ‘wellness’ centre next season and that staff will wear trainers and tracksuit rather than white coats in order to make patients feel more at ease. Other Premier and First Division clubs will follow suit.
These centres will concentrate on running tests and giving information focussing on sexually transmitted diseases, obesity problems, bowel cancer and prostate illness. We have already seen how deploying Sir Steven Redgrave as a role model has helped raise national awareness about the epidemic of Type 2 diabetes as males get fatter and less fit. It is also said the leading jockey Bob Champion has done more to help men understand the risks of pelvic cancer than 60 years of formal advertising. So finally a cure for the ills of the NHS. We shall simply rename it the Premier League, and I for one applaud.
Men’s psychological resistance to healthcare needs explaining but is probably notorious to every woman in the land. For example, when it comes to making doctors’ appointments for men, the great majority are arranged by women and they need to nag to ensure they are kept.
When it comes to describing their symptoms, especially for matters below the belt or raising issues that can be called squeamish, men will sketch the vaguest cartoons. “Oh, it’s a touch of indigestion,” says one, meaning terrible visits to the loos. “Oh, me water works is on droughtwatch” meaning I haven’t been able to pee straight in a month.
This psychic reluctance to face medical home truths runs deeply into male consicousness. In fact, if you were to reverse nearly all the propaganda myths about masculinity (which men have been careful to foster down the centuries) you would get nearer the truth.
No, men are the not the stronger sex. We may – on average – have stronger arms and legs than women but the two sexes enjoy equal abdominal strength (all that childbirth) and women have more stamina than men, they can ultimately survive deprivation and shipwreck better than men and one day will probably be able to run further than men.
Then to the most basic argument of all – men are obviously less biologically successful than women because as a sex on average we die sooner. More male babies are born than females but more boys die in the first year. The expectation of life for women is roughly six years longer than men and the gap continues to grow. Men tend to suffer more from nearly all the major illnesses than women. They have more mental illness, are responsible for more homicide and suicide, and suicide is the major cause of death amongst young men.
The only area where women’s numbers are higher for major illness is clinical depression. The joke here of course is that women are naturally depressed because it is so difficult to having to cope with unhealthy men.
Let me make it clear (before I get any more letters) I am not against men, nor knocking them. I have a personal vested interest in men’s future. I too would fight to protect my family and I applaud machismo in its place. For instance, when farm-worker Roy Tapping lost his arm in a hay-bailer I was speechless with admiration. I only wish that I could be so brave.
Mr Tapping calmly applied a tourniquet to his gory wound, tucked the fallen limb under his remaining arm, walked two miles home, put the arm in the deep-freeze, phoned the ambulance service, made a cup of tea and patiently waited to be taken to hospital for his re-attachment operation. That courage is heroic. But not all men can or should behave like this all blessed day long. We cannot be as tough as Superman. And pretending to be invulnerable unlike Superman (who feared Kryptonite), is no recipe for a long and healthy life.
Healthwise, of course, we ain’t got the beginnings of tough. Many men cannot watch operations, begin to faint at the sight of blood and know little or nothing about the workings of their own bodies.
Now it’s equally true that they know relatively little about the internal workings of women’s bodies. But this limited familiarity with female internal anatomy is dwarfed by the lack of knowledge of their own. First, how do you spell that uniquely pleasurable little male gland inside the perineum below the scrotum? If the answers came on a postcard I can testify that most men would add an ‘r’ to their prostate as if it had already knocked them over.
Second question, what does this gland do? More men will possibly think it’s a crossword clue than their own internal g-spot which also supplies fluid to add to the sperm to make-up most of the ejaculate. What does it look like? Well enough guessing. It is a smallish doughnut-shaped gland surrounding the tube leading from the bladder.
When you bear in the mind that roughly half the men over the age of 50 will suffer from benign enlargement of the prostate (known as BPH), which increasingly strangles the only plumbing vent from the bladder and yet most suffer in silence for years before asking for help, you understand the scope of the problem. And you can say the state of mind is similar whether it’s prostate trouble, bowel irregularities, or heart trouble. Most bowel cancer could be treated if caught early.
The difficult myth to confront, which using footballers as role models might help, is the idea that men must always be in charge of themselves and never be seen at less than their best or they are ‘shamed’. I think for example of the way men happily accept that women visit a gynaecologist whereas for them to adopt the same position (as is necessary for some tests and many operating procedures) is simply too undignified.
Perhaps beneath our we come down to some pervasive anxieties, not only about physical dimensions (which Freud didn’t go on about too much) but about loss of potency (which he did). The irony being that if prostate disease is treated in time, there is far less risk of invasive and damaging surgical procedures which can cause impotence.
The one criticism you could make about this new health initiative is not what football can do for medicine but whether the price will be that medicine will do too much for football. Premier League spokesman Dan Johnson says: “There’s a natural synergy between football and the healthy living agenda” but some of course are going to take this the wrong way. For the record, we don’t want more men ‘improving their health’ by copying some of the worst antics of footballers in bedroom, bar or on the motorway. But it would do none of us any harm to copy their love of outdoor exercise, slim waistlines and low resting pulses. It would also do wonders for our sex appeal.
Phillip Hodson is a Fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy www.bacp.co.uk