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Bridging the gap – gender as a barrier to health awareness campaigns

Rebecca Lawes and Vashti Miller

MHP Health’s Vashti Miller and Rebecca Lawes explore the topic of masculinity as a barrier to health and health awareness campaigns

The health sector often talks about the importance of disease awareness within the public.  Governments, pharmaceutical companies, charities and public health bodies put large amounts of time, money and energy into communications programmes, and they are in many ways the agency world’s bread and butter.  In recent years mental health has risen to the top of many political and health agendas around the world.  Societies are becoming increasingly aware of mental health conditions and conversations surrounding issues have widened.  Despite this, suicide remains the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 and in 2018, 75 per cent of all suicides were male.

We ask, does public awareness raising fundamentally result in a change of outcomes?  These programmes are often aimed at raising both awareness and an understanding of diseases in the public consciousness – But is this enough?  Statistics indicate that men are less likely to seek medical help than women and are more likely to participate in risk-taking behaviours and die prematurely.

From a PR perspective it can be easy to view awareness as the final stage.  Afterall, if the public are consciously aware of the importance of an issue, and patients are empowered with the knowledge to present themselves to the necessary caregivers, the job is done. Behavioural change can only be encouraged not forced.   ‘Stoptober’, an impactful campaign launched by Public Health England, increased awareness around the need to stop smoking; it provided individuals with resources and a time-period to do so.  In 2018, the campaign led to 500,000 people giving up smoking permanently.  If awareness is raised effectively and the public are empowered to act on their newly developed awareness, then genuine behavioural change should follow.

But does the same theory apply in the context of mental health?  The award-winning mental health writer and a speaker — Aaron Gillies — recently referred to the ‘it’s ok not to be ok’ Samaritans Real People, Real Stories campaign when discussing his personal struggle with mental health at an event hosted by UCL dissecting masculinity and health.  The campaign is widely regarded as successful in reducing the stigma surrounding mental health.  Gillies championed this but drew attention to the issue of ‘what next?’, he understood it was ‘sometimes alright not to be alright’ but explained that it is difficult to put this into practice.  It seems that there is a stark disconnect between being aware and then taking the steps to seek advice, with men less likely to do so than women.

Toxic masculinity and awareness raising

The Man Box’, a concept devised in research conducted by Promundo and Unilever, argues that ‘toxic masculinity’ is one of the reasons behind men failing to seek appropriate health care services and advice.  “Toxic masculinity” is a term used to describe the adoption of traditional male norms by an individual, which can lead to men feeling as if they must suppress emotion and act as the dominative sex.  If ‘The Man Box’ is correct, then a societal move away from traditional ‘masculine’ norms could be the key to ensuring the gap between awareness and seeking help is bridged.  That said, awareness surrounding toxic masculinity, and the impact that it can have, has made it easier for men to at least discuss health problems in a way that didn’t previously happen.

So where does this leave us?

The ‘gap’ identified between public awareness and providing a solution should spearhead health systems around the world to change policies and high awareness of an issue can be one driver of this change.  The question we are then left with is whether policy change will lead to behavioural change, particularly in men’s ability to seek help?  This is likely to be something that will happen as a combination of public awareness campaigns, generational shifts and a change in legislation and policy.

Awareness raising is just step one of the process toward impactful policy change.