Men's Health Strategy: A missed opportunity?
NB: This article was first published in October 2018 and refers to the draft Men's Health Strategy. It has not been updated to reflect the final version of the National Men's Strategy launched on 11 April 2019.
The Government’s Draft Men’s Health Strategy (2020-2030) has been released at a time of increased international focus on men’s health. It comes just weeks after the publication of a men’s health strategy for the WHO EU region, which covers 53 countries. When we consider there are only four countries in the world with a national men’s health policy, this is a significant step forward.
So while there is much to celebrate about Australia’s new strategy, if we want to continue leading the world in the men’s health field, it’s important to ask ourselves: “What are we missing?”.
Here's a list of 10 things we think are missing from the Strategy.
1. We’re still not talking about gender
Our experience of “being a man” can promote or prevent good health. While the Draft Women’s Health Strategy recognises that gender impacts women’s health, the Draft Men’s Health Strategy fails to deal with the question of how gender shapes men’s health.
As a result we are missing many opportunities to improve the lives and health of men and boys.
2. We've Lost the Focus on the Social Determinants of Men’s Health
The 2010 Men’s Health Policy was praised for its strong focus on the social determinants of health.
In contrast, the new Men’s Health Strategy could be viewed as placing more focus on improving the way health services and programs interact with men and boys, but less focus on the underlying social factors that shape men’s health.
This may be of particular concern for those working with priority groups of men, as while the strategy may focus on the “causes of poor health”, it lacks mechanisms for addressing the “causes of the causes” (e.g. improving the socioeconomic status of the most socially and economically disadvantaged men).
3. There's Less Strategic Support for Men and Boys
The new strategy sits within a complex mix of existing policies, strategies and frameworks, many of which are intended to improve everyone’s health. However, when it comes to gender, most of these policies, strategies and frameworks either:
- Fail to consider the gendered nature of key health issues such as suicide and workplace deaths
- Place a focus on gender issues relating to women and girls (but not men and boys)
The Strategy highlights the need to address the systemic barriers to good health in men, but appears unaware that the framework the Strategy sits within, is itself a barrier to improving men’s health.
4. There's Little Focus On Our Experiences of Boyhood and Fatherhood
Two of the key factors that shape men’s health are our experiences of boyhood and our experiences of fatherhood.
The fact that the education system continues to produce better outcomes for girls than boys is one of the key factors that will shape men’s health in the future.
This is one of the gender inequalities that men and boys’ face, that is inevitably missed when we fail to consider how gender and gender equity shape men’s health: better education for boys today, means better health for men tomorrow.
Fathers get a few mentions in the new Strategy. These include a reference to the value of “promoting males as fathers, future fathers and as positive role models in their families and communities”.
Yet the opportunities that fatherhood presents as a setting to improve men’s health and promote greater gender equity between men and women (one of the key objectives of the Women’s Health Strategy) have not been considered.
5. We Could Do More To Build Men’s Social Connections?
The new strategy identifies “socially isolated males” as a priority group who should be targeted, but fails to promote the health benefits of social connection for everyone.
As the 2010 Policy noted: “Healthy social networks experienced by single males, and indeed all males, provide males with positive benefits similar to those of a successful marriage or committed couple relationship such as with a gay partner”.
The lack of focus on the benefit of social connections for all men and boys, not just the most socially isolated, is a notable absence from the Strategy.
6. We Don't Appear Willing To Listen To All Men’s Voices
One of the common gender stereotypes about men and their health is that “men don’t talk”. Yet at the same time, the health sector lacks the mechanisms to give men a voice.
The Women’s Health Strategy, for example, makes references to “giving the end-user a voice” and hearing the “lived-experience of women and girls”. In contrast, the men’s health strategy focuses on “best practice consumer engagement” with a focus on reaching out to men from priority groups.
If the health sector does more to listen to men through a consumer engagement strategy, this will be a positive step forward. But if we only ask men to speak out as “health consumers”, then we miss out on the opportunity to learn from men’s lived experiences of “being a man” and develop a better understanding of how to improve the lives and health of men and boys.
7. We're Not Doing Enough To Support Men In Distress
One of the key groups of men missing from this Strategy is “Men In Distress”. The concept of “male distress” was raised by key men’s health stakeholders in the National Men’s Health Forum held in Canberra in August and is mentioned in the summary of findings, but not the Draft Men’s Health Strategy.
This is a significant gap. If we look at male suicide, for example, we know that the majority of male suicides are not linked to a mental health diagnosis, but are often linked to distressing life events such as relationship separation; relationship conflict; financial problems; bereavement; family conflict; pending legal matters; work conflict; pending or recent unemployment; child custody disputes; childhood trauma and being a victim of sexual abuse.
A male-centred approach to men’s health requires us to respond to the distressing life events that men and boys of all backgrounds can experience. The fact that this issues has not been translated from the consultation process and into the Strategy, is a significant concern.
8. We've Forgotten The Power Of Technology
The use of technology to help improve men’s health is surprisingly absent in the draft Men’s Health Strategy. There is evidence to suggest that technology can help overcome some of barriers that men fact to accessing information and services.
The Women’s Health Strategy acknowledges the need to adapt health services as “ health technologies and information systems become increasingly sophisticated” and improve access by investing in “a skilled workforce and supporting technology”.
It isn't clear why the same thinking hasn't been applied to the Men's Health Strategy, particularly when we know that technology may help address some of the barriers to good health in men.
9. We Need To Build The Men And Boys Sector
The men’s health and wellbeing sector in Australia has a wealth of experience and expertise both in terms of engaging men and boys in services, and in terms of having compassion and understanding for men’s lived experience of issues such as relationships problems; work-related stressors and financial worries.
The sector is under-resourced and under-utilised and therefore building the capacity of the sector to work in partnership with the health sector is essential, but not acknowledged in the Strategy.
10. We Need Better Advocacy for Men and Boys
One of the lessons that emerges from the items listed above is that there is a lack of mechanisms to support effective advocacy for men and boys.
The Men’s Health Strategy appears to overlook a series of key issues including:
- Gender as a determinant of men’s health (our experiences of "being a man")
- The gender equality issues that impact men and boys (e.g. boys’ education)
- The social factors that shape men’s health (“the causes of the causes”)
- The social determinants that can place priority groups of men at great risk
- The lack of male-centred National, State and Federal strategies, policies and frameworks
- Men and boys' diverse experiences of boyhood and fatherhood
- The value of building men’s social support networks
- The value of giving voice to men’s lived experiences
- The unique needs of “Men In Distress”
- The opportunities that using technology bring
- The value of building the capacity of the men and boys' sector
These are issues that, with the help of better mechanisms to support advocacy for men and boys, could be included in the National Men's Health Strategy in ways that help to improve the lives and health of men and boys.
At present, the Strategy appears to be so strongly focused on the point where men as consumers engage with health services, that it is missing opportunities to focus on the broader context of men’s lives.
Of course, there is also much to celebrate in the Strategy as our article "National Health Strategy: Great New For Men" outlines.
HOW TO TELL US WHAT YOU THINK
As the national forum for men's health in Australia, we actively welcome a diverse range of viewpoints on health and gender issues and we encourage respectful discussion between people with differing views. Here are three ways you can tell us what you think about the National Men's Health Strategy: