By Sean McCalley
Good news if you’re trying to get inside the White House: You have options.
You can try winning the keys to the front door by slogging through primaries and caucuses. Others try the cheaper, more direct route, by jumping the fence and dodging Secret Service. A lucky few might win the Super Bowl and get an invitation for a picture and a handshake with the president.
Don’t worry if those options aren’t your style, though. On Friday, January 8, every man in America found himself inside the White House, whether he knew it or not. Everyone who cares about his well being was there, too.
Because right now men are the source of a national health crisis, so the White House made them the focus of a Dialogue on Men’s Health.
“Houston, we have a problem…”
Men don’t like going to the doctor for one simple reason: because we don’t think we need to. There’s no point. You’re not a man if you get upset or worried about something that’s not an emergency. Anyway, we’re usually too busy to go to the doctor. Food on the table doesn’t just grow on trees, you know.
Unfortunately, that mentality, combined with a unique set of genetic and cultural hurdles, is killing us.
“I’ve witnessed early death, early morbidity in my circle of family and friends. Men just die much sooner than they should,” said Darrell Sabbs, community benefits manager for Phoebe Putney Health System in Georgia.
“Look at the data: Men are just sicker and die faster as a species. And educating and giving health access to men is not a priority.”
Men die at higher rates for nine out of the top ten causes of death. That includes heart disease, cancer, diabetes, suicide and accidents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says Native Americans and African American men have the lowest life expectancy out of all racial and gender demographics. Combine all the groups? Women still live about five years longer.
Even non-lethal, male-specific problems can become huge burdens. Erectile dysfunction and low testosterone, for example, cause depression and hurt relationships.
The Obama Administration just announced its $1 billion initiative called the “National Cancer Moonshot.” It has a very noble goal, and deserves all those resources and more. The announcement came less than a week after the White House Dialogue on Men’s Health.
“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” a famous astronaut said once.
The “Moonshot” justifiably stole the spotlight, but luckily it doesn’t overshadow the importance of the Dialogue. It was standing-room-only as the Administration, along with nonprofits Men’s Health Network and Disruptive Women in Health Care, packed the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Inside were two Super Bowl rings, 100 private companies, more than 230 people, 28 speakers, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and Cabinet Secretary Broderick Johnson.
“I was struck by the level of enthusiasm and commitment from a broad range of groups. It was a surprise, not only because of the number of the groups but also the diversity of fields dedicated to improving men’s health,” said Dr. David Gremillion, professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina and former president of the Society of Air Force Physicians.
Tech developers, three NFL teams, car manufacturers, advocates and doctors joined together to share their own strategies to improve men’s health. Many people understand and recognize specific cancers and fundraising movements to stop them. But fewer realize we first need to break down the mental and cultural barriers that keep men from caring about seeing a doctor before problems arise.
Overall men’s health is not, and never was, an everyday priority for most people. Gremillion first saw the lack of interest and awareness when leaving the Air Force decades ago.
“Men were treated like inventory [in the military]. We had to be functioning well at all times to serve,” he said. “That meant we didn’t have a choice when to visit the dentist or get blood work. We simply had to do it. But things are very different in general society.”
Once he left the Air Force, he realized most people either don’t think about or don’t know how to care for men. It wasn’t “politically correct” in the 80s and 90s for men to talk about mental health or domestic violence aimed at them. Gremillion wonders if people would have thrown more resources at combating HIV if they hadn’t associated it with gay men.
But we men are great at standing in our own way, too. We sometimes earn applause for it. It’s cool to be tough, and it’s easy not to think about the future. There’s a reason why men rank higher in the death totals for accidents: Many of us like to show off and do dangerous, reckless things to impress people. Thank testosterone for that.
But the White House Dialogue signals a change. A change in how the country views the men’s health crisis – even if, for now, that only means acknowledging it exists. Hopefully the momentum doesn’t end until the hundreds of private sector representatives and doctors gathered in the White House evolve into a national dialogue between millions of people who care about the men in their lives.
“I would love to see a federal Office of Boys and Men’s Health that can address policy, research, and funding,” said Darryl Davidson, director of the Men’s Health Division for the Northwest Health Center in Milwaukee.
“I want to see states embrace the concept that men’s health is a result of men and their supporting environment. They need to address different areas like advocacy, healthcare, education, job training, and their families. These social determinants of health all affect their quality of life and life expectancy.”
We celebrate Men’s Health Month every June to make sure men understand how to lead healthier lives, and to highlight their importance to their families and communities. June isn’t too far away. There are many ways you can get involved and help the men close to you live a healthier life. But you shouldn’t wait until June every year to take action: many men need help now, even if they’re too proud to admit it.
About the author: Sean McCalley manages communications and media relations for the nonprofit Men’s Health Network. His professional background includes years spent in broadcast, print, and multimedia journalism.