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Why So Many Men Refuse to Ask for Help (Even When They’re Dying)

In late April, Macmillan Cancer Support (one of the largest charities in Britain) revealed that men are less than half as likely to call their support lines as women, suggesting that guys are significantly less willing to ask for help, even when diagnosed with cancer.

The charity also released statements from five men with cancer to shed light on this issue, and hopefully inspire others to ask for help before reaching a point of crisis. (Previous Macmillan research found that 49 percent of men diagnosed with cancer experience anxiety during treatment, and 25 percent become depressed.) “I’ve always been a mentally tough, strong guy, but when cancer came, it broke me,” strong-man competitor Craig Toley, who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at age 29, told Macmillan. “My dad had leukaemia many years before, and seeing what he had been through terrified me. I didn’t want my family to know how I felt because they all lived through it once before.”

Toley goes on to recount the moment he realized asking for help was an important part of not only coping with cancer, but also surviving the disease. “When my treatment was nearing its end, I spiralled into a dark depression that I kept from everyone around me,” he said. “I decided to host a charity strongman competition to focus on, but leading up to the competition I was breaking down crying and started to realize I needed help. At the competition, I was an emotional mess and had to ring one of my gym friends to help me get my head in a better place so I could actually compete.”

It’s a heartbreaking story, but not an uncommon one, and exposes an institutionalized problem among men: Guys refuse to ask for help when they’re diagnosed with cancer, despite the fact they’re 22 percent more likely to be diagnosed and 45 percent more likely to die from the disease than women, according to Macmillan.

More Macmillan research points to a few potential reasons behind this dangerous trend:

  • 20 percent of men with cancer claim to experience a loss of masculinity while going through treatment, which may lead to social withdrawal.
  • 25 percent of men with cancer rarely or never talk to their spouse about the disease, because they want them to believe that they can “handle it.”
  • 17 percent of men with cancer feel like “less of a man” after being diagnosed, which again, may send them into a world of loneliness.

But the issue goes even deeper, according to psychologist Wizdom Powell, whose research focuses on how gender norms affect men’s health. “We know, for example, that men, on average, are more likely to watch and wait for signs and symptoms of disease and distress before seeking help,” Powell explains. “If a man is in pain, the pain may have to reach a certain fever pitch before he may be willing to seek help, or to signal to others that he’s in need of help—and that pattern of help-seeking among males has been largely described as an outgrowth of men’s tendency to endorse rigid prescriptions and proscriptions about masculinity.” Powell goes on to explain that the following statements contribute to the gender norms associated with the kind of masculinity she’s referring to: “Boys don’t cry;” “Take it like a man;” and “Walk it off.”

Now, it’s worth noting that this retroactive type of masculinity isn’t accepted by every man. “The key thing to remember is there’s quite a bit of variability in men’s endorsement of those kinds of norms,” Powell emphasizes. “There are a number of men who feel comfortable with being emotionally vulnerable, seeking help and disclosing pain or distress. But the fact is that masculinity norms are in the air, and we all breathe them in—men and women—and the rigidity around them is something that’s a constant thing that we’re having to work against as a society.”

So, what can we do—as a society, and as individuals—to encourage men to speak up? “The first thing we have to do to move the needle on male help-seeking in a positive direction is to create a culture of vulnerability and sharing that gives men and boys social permission to seek help,” says Powell. “These norms live in our DNA and in our cultural expression, so we’re all relatively complicit in sustaining them. When we see a male expressing vulnerability or disclosing emotion, it shouldn’t become this thing that we recoil against as a society.”

While this all may be much more than any one individual is capable of taking on, Powell also recommends being more thoughtful in the ways we socialize boys as they’re coming of age. “Individually, we can all do something different,” Powell suggests. “Think, if you will, about being a parent and being on the playground, seeing a boy fall down. How we respond in that moment—whether we say, ‘C’mon, big boys don’t cry,’ versus ‘Tell me how you’re feeling, and I’m sorry that happened’—changes the way we respond to emotional vulnerability and help-seeking among boys, and changes that paradigm.”

In a recent, related article about why millennial men don’t go to therapy, MEL features writer Eddie Kim reveals how this lack of emotional communication between parents and their male children also contributes to a reluctance to ask for help:

“Part of the problem is that parents often don’t talk to boys about mental-health struggles, and have difficulty with their own understanding of mental illness. A survey by the charity Age U.K. found that 70 percent of adults 55 years or older believe it’s harder for older people to discuss the topic because anxiety and depression weren’t recognized as illnesses when they were growing up. In fact, three-quarters of respondents said they were raised with a ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude, and 22 percent said they feel talking about mental illness would only make it worse.

Basically, if we want to become a more sympathetic society, it’s important that we all help teach men to discuss their feelings from the get-go. If we don’t, men will continue to become martyrs to a cause that isn’t helping anyone, least of all themselves.