Toxic masculinity isn’t just hurting our women, it’s also hurting our men—in fact it’s killing them.
It’s killing them in the form of treatable diseases like heart disease and cancer; and mental health issues like anxiety and depression. No longer can we say “she’ll be right” or “grow some balls” because the statistics show that if men aren’t careful, they won’t be right and the only thing that might grow is prostate cancer. Mind our bluntness but it really isn’t a laughing matter.
To shed light on the extent of the problem, The Lovepost caught up with the gently assertive Dr Abhi Charukonda from Men’s Health Trust New Zealand, and discussed the impact of toxic masculinity and machismo on men’s health.
Can you tell us a little about how you got involved with Men’s Health Trust New Zealand?
For a while now, I have been interested in the discrepancies between the health of men and women and have experienced the sociocultural factors that play into these discrepancies from both a personal perspective and from what I’ve observed while working in hospitals across New Zealand. Fortuitously, I was introduced to the Men’s Health Trust NZ organisation about four years ago by some friends and it’s been a very rewarding experience working together to raise awareness and improve these discrepancies.
Which aspects of machismo/toxic masculinity have a negative impact on men? Is there a particular demographic it’s more prominent in?
The word machismo is defined as a sense of being 'manly' and self-reliant, and associated with a man's responsibility to provide for, protect, and defend his family.
Machismo isn’t just about squaring up to everyone trying to assert dominance, it can exist as a denial of concerns, whether they be related to physical health, mental health, relationships, career or finances. It cleverly disguises denial as strength, cowardice as courage. I suspect this is a remnant of an era where men were the primary breadwinners, and society’s expectation of men was to show ‘strength’. The cliche “boys don’t cry” was and still is drilled into many.
These expectations of men are universal around the world and aren’t tied to a particular demographic or age group. The discrepancies seen in the mortality and morbidity rates in men when compared to women, from largely amenable diseases strongly reflects this. Between the ages of 50 and 75 years, the overall number of deaths for men is 30% higher than for women. Heart diseases and cancer are among the leading causes of death for New Zealand men.
Dr Abhi Charukonda from Men's Health Trust New Zealand
Can you tell us a little more about some of the most common amenable diseases that are killing our men?
The primary concerns are:
1. Heart disease
Heart attacks, heart failure, stroke and TIA (transient ischaemic attacks or "mini stroke") all relate to poor blood vessel health. Poor diet and sedentary lifestyle lead to obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol. This in turn can lead to plaque building up and blocking off blood supply to vital organs such as the heart and brain causing the diseases above. Smoking compounds these ill effects. On its own it also adds to the risks of developing the above diseases.
- Bowel cancer: especially if there is a family history of it. Early detection is key in aiming for a positive outcome if diagnosed with this. The earlier the better.
- Prostate cancer: also as above. It’s very treatable if found before it has spread from the primary organ.
- Skin cancer: being sun smart, monitoring moles for any danger signs or better even, having a regular check-up with a GP to keep an eye on them.
- Lung cancer: smoking is a major culprit here and the type of lung cancer that can be caused by smoking of course is obviously avoidable with cessation of smoking.
3. Mental Health
- Anxiety disorder
- Depressive disorder
These two can creep up and if ignored can snowball. Suicide rates are higher among men than women. Seeking help early isn't a weakness. These conditions are just as amenable to help and can be gotten on top of easier, the earlier they can be addressed.
What made you notice the negative impact of machismo on men? Is this something you have always noticed, or has it become more apparent in recent years?
Humans are experiential beings; we are stubborn, we want to make our own mistakes in order to learn from them. This I believe holds more and more true for men—hindsight is 20/20, and therefore often these lessons are learnt in retrospect.
For me, through reflection and introspection of events in my life, and situations I have experienced as a doctor, I’ve come to realise how deep men's capacity for denial can be. I’ve seen denial towards health concerns as extreme as a young man having to be dragged in by his heels into the ED by his wife after putting off his chest pain all weekend, only to find out his right lung had completely collapsed. I cannot impress how lucky he was to have survived that. A lot of the time, it doesn’t end in a good way. I’ve had to tell a 50 year old man, surrounded by his wife, kids and grandkids that his lung cancer had spread too far and wide to be curable and there wouldn’t be much time left. If only he hadn’t ignored his chest pain and breathlessness for so long, perhaps he could have had some more precious time with his family and friends.
Unfortunately, these are not isolated stories and a large part of what Men's Health Trust NZ (MHTNZ) is trying to improve.
How do we unlearn behaviors that are so deeply embedded within us and break the cycle of toxic masculinity?
The societal expectations that have been hardwired into us must change. Change starts small and I believe we are already seeing a shift in the way we perceive masculinity. It is increasingly becoming part of the cultural norm for men to address, reflect upon and express their emotions. The birth of the feminist era, metrosexuality, women becoming bread winners—these are just some of the catalysts and evidence of this societal shift. Due to this shift, we are already seeing improvements in the statistics on men’s health; however, far bigger leaps are necessary before some form of equality is reached.
We as a society must continue to encourage the idea that there is strength, not weakness in showing emotion, addressing perils and asking for help. These messages should be filtered across all generations from childhood to old age and further. We must teach our kids that addressing emotions and talking about them is a necessary step towards psychological well being. We must ensure our partners, sons, fathers and grandfathers know that if there is some physical or emotional ailment no matter how small, seeking help early is courageous, not cowardly. That having honest conversations about our lives with our friends, colleagues or anyone we may see struggling is human, not wimpy.
Women, in particular, can really help encourage these changes as they are already light years ahead of us [men] in this respect—we would certainly be far worse off without them.