Clark presents seminar; experts brief legislators on 'Men at Risk'

April 4, 2011

Men are supposed to be strong.

Rather than seek medical assistance for their physical well-being, they are expected to "tough it out."

Rather than seek professional help for their mental well-being, they are told to keep their emotions in check.

But ...

Men also commit suicide at four times the rate of women.

Men are the victims of domestic abuse — numbering about 18 percent of the total number of victims in 2009 — more often than most people would ever imagine.

Photos of the Men at Risk seminar can be viewed on Clark's Flickr stream.

Men who are post-divorce often suffer from a variety of social-health problems, including alcohol and substance abuse, depression and increased financial burdens.

In short, according to a group of researchers who spoke March 30 at the Massachusetts State House, many men need assistance with their overall well-being. The problem is they often refuse to seek it out because of societal stigmas, cultural norms, and other barriers that hinder their willingness to pursue avenues that will improve their health.

The researchers presented their findings to state legislators and their aides at a forum titled Mass Men: Men at Risk, The Physical, Mental and Social Health of Men in Massachusetts. The event was the second Massachusetts Family Impact Seminar hosted by the Mosakowski Institute for Public Enterprise at Clark.

Click here to read a copy of the "Men at Risk" briefing report.

The Institute's first seminar, held last year at the Statehouse, explored the recession's impact on families. In 2009 Clark was accepted as the university to represent Massachusetts in the National Policy Institute for Family Impact Seminars at the University of Wisconsin. The seminars provide up-to-date, solution-oriented research on current issues for state legislators, their aides, and legislative support personnel, but do not lobby for any particular policies.

In her introductory remarks, Denise Hines, professor of psychology at Clark, said men's health is of particular concern given the still struggling economy. She noted that some experts have labeled the recession a "Man-cession" because of men are at higher risk of unemployment which exacerbates long-standing health problems.

Senator Harriette Chandler, M.A. '63, Ph.D. '73, stressed that "legislators should be aware of the significance of these problems and how to deal with them."

Speaking about the issues affecting men's physical health, James R. Mahalik, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Boston College, offered some alarming statistics. Among them:

  • Men die 5.4 years earlier than women

  • Men die at higher rates than women from 14 of the 15 leading causes of death (Alzheimer's disease is the exception)

  • Under the age of 65, 75 percent who die from heart attacks are men.

Mahalik said men are worse than women in nearly every healthy-living category, from diet to the wearing of seatbelts to the use of sunscreen (men die of melanoma at a rate four times that of women). Men also visit a physician less often and are less likely than women to have regular cholesterol, blood pressure or cancer screenings.

He said men engage in health-risk behaviors that are associated with masculine norms prevalent in popular culture. For example, movies extol violence, and advertising portrays the consumption of alcohol as a playful pursuit. The late race car driver, Dale Earnhart (nickname: The Intimidator), is held up as a paragon of toughness, yet his unwillingness to wear a head and neck support while racing contributed to his death in an accident, Mahalik said.

Men will avoid seeking medical attention for a number of reasons, Mahalik said, from cultural barriers that dictate seeking assistance is somehow not masculine to refusing to miss part of a work day for a physician's visit.

There needs to be health-promotion efforts targeted to men, he said. Mahalik noted that it's important for men to see other men engaging in healthy lifestyles, whether through the media, in their own families and/or at the workplace.

Mahalik said professional athletes are held up as role models, but people rarely see the hard work that goes into bringing them to an elite fitness level. "[Patriots quarterback] Tom Brady, [Red Sox players] Jon Lester and Carl Crawford are not eating Subway down the street," he said. "They're not getting double cheese steaks." He added that the media also can send messages that it's unmanly to treat injuries, noting that Red Sox outfielder J.D. Drew, who has missed many games due to injury, is sometimes derided as "Nancy Drew" by fans and in the press.

"That can become a barrier to getting help," he said.

Men's reluctance to seek treatment for their physical health is mirrored by their reluctance to pursue mental health options, said Michael Addis, professor of psychology and founder of The Men's Coping Project at Clark.

The consequences of undetected and untreated mental illness can be financial, physical and social, Addis said. Men, he said, are "less likely to seek help for virtually every problem." They drop out of treatment more quickly, ask fewer questions of physicians, and are asked fewer questions by physicians. "Men in Massachusetts are no different than men elsewhere," he said.

"For a substantial portion of men, emotional distress is masked," Addis said. "Perhaps that's why the suicide rate is so high."

With a few exceptions, mental health services in Massachusetts are generally comprehensive and effective, Addis said. The challenge is getting men to recognize the mental health issues in their lives and seek help. When they don't, it can have a "reverberating effect" on their families and communities, he said.

From an early age, men are trained to be stoic, tough and self-reliant, he said. Hence, getting treatment is "for wimps." Addis pointed to a television commercial for the insurance carrier GEICO, in which a former drill instructor-turned-therapist berates his weeping patient as a "crybaby."

The key, he said, is to remove obstacles to treatment by educating, normalizing and destigmatizing attitudes toward seeking help. Some ways to that would be to begin planning for the creation of a state commission on men's mental health, develop public awareness campaigns in which high-profile men acknowledge their own struggles with mental illness, and introduce health care policies directed at education, prevention and treatment of men's mental health issues.

Emily Douglas '95, assistant professor in the School of Social Work at Bridgewater State University, said men are faced with a number of fallacies when it comes to social and family relationships. Among them, men don't take marriage seriously, that divorced fathers don't care about their children, that men's concerns post-divorce are not important.

Men face a number of difficult challenges following divorce, Douglas said. They are more likely than married men to abuse alcohol, have lower income, and grieve the loss of the "father role."

In response to helping men in the aftermath of divorce, states can do such things as encourage joint/shared custody through legal statute and make a commitment to collect information on child custody outcomes, Douglas said.

Cultural stereotypes work against men when it comes to dealing with issues of male victims of domestic violence, she said. According to the Department of Justice, 18 percent of domestic violence victims in 2009 were men. But men stay in potentially harmful situations for a number of reasons such as concern for their children, belief that their partners will change, and lack of financial resources to go any other place.

Some strategies for counteracting domestic violence toward men are public education initiatives, treating male and female victims together and using gender-inclusive language when discussing domestic-partner violence, Douglas said.