Men’s lives are being shortened as prejudice and pressure build on them to live up to society’s stereotypes and repress their true feelings, leading to chronic disease and suicide, a panel of experts has agreed.
The experts appeared on a Heart and Stroke Foundation of Barbados panel discussion on Men’s Risks in 2020: Sexuality, Suicide and Sudden Death at the Barbados Museum.
Occupational therapist at the Psychiatric Hospital Lennox Rochester said: “Every man has three identities to deal with: the man he wants others to think he is, the man he thinks he is, and the man he truly is.
“Men face overwhelming pressure internally and externally.
“We have an internal drive to provide for our families and contribute to the community, but we struggle with the expectations others have of us.
“We have trained ourselves to ignore the nagging pains because we cannot show weakness, so we respond with fear or anger.
“Fear causes men to withdraw and internalise their feelings, while anger causes them to lash out.”
The audience was gripped by the personal experience of social worker Fabian Sargeant, whose sister died in a murder-suicide three years ago. He said he ignored some of the signs his brother-in-law was displaying shortly before he killed her and himself. He urged the audience not to make that mistake.
Sargeant said: “Three weeks prior to that incident, I would have stopped him from committing suicide, and as a social worker I should have reported that to the relevant authorities, but my sister begged me not to and said she would get him the help he needed.
“However, I had noticed some months before that he was starting to sell some of his possessions and some other actions which indicated to me that he was contemplating suicide.
“We must always be aware of the signs because suicides are always well planned out.”
And Sargeant also called on Barbadians to “get real” when it came to talking about sex.
All the panellists noted that men were stereotypically considered “real men” if they drank lots of alcohol or had multiple sex partners, and Sargeant said society’s homophobia made it difficult for young gay men to come out of the closet.
He said: “In my work, I have seen people on the verge of suicide because of sexual issues.
“People are burdened because they cannot speak about their sexuality, as they are afraid of the response they will get from their family, school, church or other social group.
“But it is a conversation we must have because it has resulted in high levels of bisexuality.”
As more men continue to be struck down by chronic non-communicable diseases, UWI medical tutor Dr Kenneth Connell noted one of his student doctors’ concern about the ages of men now with cardiovascular disease.
He said: “When I looked at the list of patients admitted to the Accident and Emergency Department, all of them were under 45, and the severe ones with heart attacks and strokes were young men in the prime of their lives, and two of them died before making it to the clinical wards. Twenty years ago, when I was a student doctor, heart attacks were “old people’s diseases’.”
Pharmacist and religious minister Reverend Enric Connolly said men had a laissez-faire attitude to their health and needed to take it more seriously.
He told the audience: “I had a discussion with a man six months ago about his high consumption of alcohol.
“He was drinking heavily and he was arguing that alcohol was good for you because it did not have any sugar in it.
“I tried to explain to him the process of developing alcohol but it went nowhere.
“Sadly, he died three weeks ago, after he went into a diabetic coma and never recovered – and he was only 47 years old.
“Until men take responsibility for their health, we will continue to face challenges with these non-communicable diseases.”
Connolly, along with Dr Connell, blamed stigma for men’s fears to discuss certain health matters such as erectile dysfunction, even with their doctors.
Connolly said: “There is an institutional bias in Barbados’ health care system, in that most of the people working there are women, and sometimes deal with men in an unprofessional manner.
“Men are strange in that they might want help with a problem, but they hope someone else can spot it without their saying what it is.”
Dr Connell concurred: “Usually when I am in a consultancy or carrying out an examination, there are other people in the room, so I find men often whisper their concerns to me once it’s just the two of us, and that is what men need, a safe space where they can share their feelings or concerns confidentially with someone they can trust.”
He also advised men to be open and honest about their health issues, and to make a list of items they wanted to discuss on a doctor’s visit.