The stigma of men’s health as a product of history
Men’s health has been stigmatized for far too long. This stigmatization is a historical legacy that can be traced back to the normalized use of the diagnoses soldier’s heart, shell shock, and war neurosis, which were first coined after World War I in reference to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Crocq, and Crocq). It may seem coincidental that each of these diagnoses – which describe a fully valid mental health disorder on general trauma – focus solely on a theme of war and conflict. But, this is not the case. The presence of these themes of discord quintessentially reflects the general public’s philosophy towards men at the time – that they must be their families’ armor and strength. The use of language in these diagnoses insinuates that a man must carry the burden of these conditions in isolation, as they have a duty of defense towards their people that must be performed in ‘strength’. In simpler terms, language alone can craft wounding ideologies that minimize the true risks of health detriments for men. This entirely elucidates the modern concept of toxic masculinity, which may be defined as an unhealthy loyalty to traditional gender roles that stigmatize and, therefore, constrain men’s expression of emotion (Clemens). History seems to be repeating itself with nuance, but the question lies in whether we choose to enable this
Silence is compliance
In such convictions lie the risk of sacrificing men’s health for the betterment of their families, communities, and principally, their homeland. By remaining silent on men’s health, we inadvertently become compliant to a system that perpetuates toxic masculinity, whether it exists in a traditional or modern form. With this, I reveal the purpose of The Movember Movement and inherently, of this article: to enkindle a conversation in hopes of one day destigmatizing men’s health, whether that be of mental health, physical health, or otherwise.
Two stories of resilience
We begin with two stories of men of the Movember community (also called ‘Mo Bros’), who showed resilience in the face of irrefutably challenging moments in their lives. These men act as living proof that stigmatization is nothing but destructive, and that destigmatizing a man’s health can save a life.
Destigmatizing mental health: A story of man versus self
First, we begin with the story of Graeme, a man who battles with depression. Upon reflecting on the epiphanies of his experience, Graeme powerfully claims in an entrancing statement that “depression doesn’t discriminate” (Movember). This inspiring figure elaborates his words of wisdom by claiming that the idea that “depression comes from weakness or a character flaw” is mere folklore (Movember). On the contrary, although the idea is simply a myth, it has an all-too-realistic stigmatizing effect and outcome. Such misguided assumptions cause men to inherit thought processes that associate any signs of emotion with weakness, leading to self-suppression. In other words, the stigmatization of men’s mental health by external forces is ultimately internalized, which has also been proven by many scholars to be true (Chatmon). This starts with outsider individuals making oversimplified statements such as “just get over it” or “you just can’t handle stress”, and ends with further damage for the sufferer. Graeme serves as validation for the detrimental impacts of stigmatization on men’s mental health, as he admits to once denying the possibility that he suffers depression (Movember). In this scenario, stigmatization is not the only structural force to blame, but so is the lack of conversation on the condition, which, once again, intersects with the former force. Understanding stigma and its negative consequences on mental health therefore proves to be vital, especially when the statistics show that 264 million people around the world suffer from depression (James et al.). And remember, this number represents only those who enable themselves to cross the barrier of stigma for diagnosis.
Regarding his situation now, Graeme eventually found an effective treatment, now living in solace in the knowledge that he has a chosen family – his cycling community – and the support of neighbors to care for his resilient fire (Movember). He himself seems to have been transformed into a caregiver, as he now advocates for depression for all those who face it (Movember). What sets his hope aflame on his hardest days, though, is a single word under the skin of his left wrist: Anicca, which is Sanskrit for ‘impermanence’ (Movember). To him, this signifies the ever-changing nature of life – that nothing persists unless you let it.
Destigmatizing prostate cancer: An outsider’s narrative
In this second real-life story, Andrew tells the story of his father, who was diagnosed with early-stage prostate cancer (Perez). The narrator, in contrast to the preceding story, is, therefore, an outsider. That is, Andrew is not the one diagnosed, but an observer that tells the story. It is vital to consider the perspective of any outsiders that have some form of a relationship with the one seeking care. The substance behind this lies in the fact that outsiders are almost – if one may say – spectators to stigmatization, as they watch stigma’s attempts at perpetuating their loved one’s health complexities. Andrew introduces his father’s story by identifying the root of his habitual need to care for others; his raison d’être: his younger brother, a person of determination (Perez). Despite the fact that it was therefore against nature for Andrew to accept being powerless, he eventually managed to realize that cancer’s ambiguity made the situation far beyond his control (Perez). However, he refused to accept – and rightfully so – the fear that his father would internalize the external stigma around prostate cancer. Andrew became aware of this existing external stigma when his friends expressed their worries for their fathers’ lack of an “active approach to saving themselves” (Perez). This instance of realization would then translate to Andrew’s discovery of a belief common to many men – that strength is in their silence. That suffering “various cancers silently” was a display of fortitude, and he soon learned that this was the product of stigmatization.
In fact, according to a study by Northwestern University, prostate cancer research was dangerously underfunded relative to other cancers (Highleyman). The basis that determined whether a type of cancer was ‘overfunded’ or ‘underfunded’ was comparisons of funding with the number of new cases, deaths, and years of life lost from the type of cancer (Highleyman). Upon investigating the reason for the underfunding of research for prostate cancer, the researchers concluded that among the elected cancers, those “associated with stigma were poorly funded” (Highleyman). Besides the point of the preceding paragraph that stigma for cancer among men may result from toxic masculinity, this study highlighted another fundamental cause – stigmatized behavior. In the context of prostate cancer, this refers to the shame associated with talking about sex or ‘private parts’ (Highleyman).
Andrew and Dave’s father-son relationship served as a major positive influence in destigmatizing prostate cancer for Dave, and therefore in his treatment. As Dave altered his lifestyle in terms of “diet, exercise, and stress reduction”, his son provided moral support by doing so as well (Perez). Andrew also outlined a program called the UCSF Active Surveillance program, which seems to have assisted in his father’s betterment as well (Perez). Overall, this true story serves as a case in point for the need for unity in communities, so that individuals with cancer who continue to battle for their lives can feel acknowledged, supported, and hopeful.
Shifting the paradigm
By now, the gravity of stigmatization in influencing men’s health worldwide is evident, whether that be in terms of their mental or physical health. The two stories in this article may entail divergent conditions, perspectives, and causes of stigma, but intertwine in a single sense: the damaging effects of both health conditions are grandly exacerbated by stigmatization, and destigmatizing these conditions calls for difficult conversations in unity. The Movember Movement continues to successfully craft a bridge between the modern paradigm of toxic masculinity and a world where men’s health is destigmatized. It is now up to us to make the right decisions in order to someday walk this path in harmony.