OPINION: A New Zealand boy born today will live three-and-half-years less than a baby girl born next door. Other countries are starting to take the issue of men’s health seriously, writes Jehan Casinader, so why don’t we?

“Men have it so easy,” we often hear. “What do they have to complain about?”

As it turns out, quite a bit. Kiwi men are three times more likely than women to die by suicide. We’re 20% more likely to die from heart disease. We’re twice as likely to be injured at work. Each year, 4000 men get prostate cancer, and around 700 die from it – similar to breast cancer.

It’s a bit risky to even mention these stats. When I posted them on LinkedIn, some were outraged that I’d compared health outcomes for men and women.

“Make no mistake, Jehan Casinader – life is rather simple, less painful and more favourable for men, not women,” wrote one person.

More favourable? You bet. For centuries, men have enjoyed privilege in every sector of society, and healthcare is no exception. Until the 1990s, women were rarely included in clinical trials. Even today, the rats used in medical research are overwhelmingly male.

Women are more likely than men to be misdiagnosed, or not taken seriously by doctors. Kiwi women have waited decades for proper recognition of endometriosis, birth injuries, periods and menopause – not only from doctors, but employers and policymakers too.

But the fact that women are disadvantaged does not mean that men are advantaged. A health system that’s failing women may also, in very different ways, be failing men.

“Maybe we need a men’s health strategy,” replied one person on LinkedIn – followed by a laughing emoji. But maybe we do.

NZ trails behind Australia and UK

In 2020, Australia launched its groundbreaking National Men’s Health Strategy, billed as “a critical step towards improving the health of all men and boys… particularly those at greatest risk of poor health.”

Last year, a briefing to the UK government highlighted “growing evidence of inequity in men’s health outcomes”. (Yep – read that sentence again.)

The UK government introduced a bunch of initiatives, including a major prostate cancer screening trial, a national Men’s Health Ambassador, and improved resources.

Britain’s Labour Party, which is on track to win next month’s election, has promised a men’s health strategy, joining countries like Ireland, Brazil, Malaysia and South Africa. The shadow health secretary says he’s “enraged” by the state of men’s health, adding that Britain has been “slow to wake up to the fact that it’s quite hard to be a young man in today’s society”.

New Zealand has no men’s health strategy

So, what’s our government up to? Answer: absolutely nothing. When I asked the Ministry of Health to tell me about its initiatives focused specifically on men, I heard the sound of crickets. While it has a women’s health strategy, New Zealand does not have a men’s health strategy, and the ministry has no plans to develop one.

New Zealand's minister of health Shane Reti.

Back in 2008, Helen Clark’s government set up a Men’s Health Forum and a $3 million Men’s Health Innovation Fund, declaring that “improving the wellbeing of our men is vital”. After a few years, that work vanished.

Why do I care? Because, for 15 years, I’ve tried to shine a light on men’s health issues. On shows like Sunday and Seven Sharp, I’ve interviewed a couple of hundred men – and I can’t erase their names, faces and stories from my memory.

The farmer who tried to end his life. The rugby player who broke his neck and became a paraplegic. The army veteran who came home from Afghanistan with PTSD. The young professional who developed an eating disorder. The engineer who lost his legs in a gas explosion. The teen who crashed a car and killed his best mate. The police officer who hid his depression. The former mayor who lost his memory after a stroke. The list is endless.

I’ve also had conversations with so many grieving parents who have lost a son to suicide. Many of those young men had not been diagnosed with an illness, but were struggling with loneliness, identity, financial pressure, relationships issues, or the ongoing trauma of physical or sexual abuse in childhood.

Jehan Casinader interviews Maria Dillon, whose son Harry McLean ended his life in 2013.

Yes, “male privilege” is real – but it doesn’t prevent men from experiencing pain. In fact, New Zealand’s tough brand of masculinity is exactly what stops guys from asking for help. Some would rather battle on until they’re on death’s door before going to the doctor.

For years, charities and community initiatives – like Men’s Health Week, Movember and Blue September – have been encouraging men to prioritise their health.

So, why should the government care? Because it’s still spending billions on men’s injuries and illnesses that are totally preventable.

Many men have no idea that their blood pressure is high. They’re unsure of their prostate health. They’re wearing down their joints through unsafe work practices. Drinking too many nights a week. Having broken sleep. Not exercising enough. Eating food that’s pushing them towards diabetes. Bottling up painful experiences. Struggling with work stress – and perhaps even dark thoughts.

I’ve been there. In 2020, I opened up about my journey through depression and suicidality. In the four years since, I’ve travelled around New Zealand, speaking to more than 200 business and community audiences about mental health.

Jehan Casinader talks to a group about mental health.

Whether I’m talking to builders in Taupō, engineers in Dunedin or accountants in Auckland, I’m always surprised by how many men come up to me afterwards and tell me things they’ve never shared with their doctor – or even their partner.

In New Zealand, men’s health advice usually involves telling blokes to cut back on booze – and check their balls for lumps every once in a while. That’s pretty much it. But in countries that have a men’s health strategy, there are many creative approaches.

In the UK, where men are 20% less likely to go to the GP than women, the NHS has run health screening clinics at football stadiums, barbershops, pubs and mosques.

Ireland’s government has trained health workers to communicate better with men, and understand the gender norms that prevent them from using health services.

The Australian government is spending $1 million a year on funding for “men’s sheds”. At 1000 of these loneliness-busting clubs, men gather to build stuff and find new mates. Men’s sheds have been shown to combat isolation and help men to find support.

Addressing male loneliness: the Australian government is spending $1 million a year on funding for “men’s sheds”.

Some people may worry that any money spent on men’s health will come at the expense of marginalised groups in our population. That’s an understandable concern. But this isn’t about funding. It’s about putting men’s health on the agenda – and making better use of the limited resources that are already available.

A men’s health strategy is not the opposite of a women’s health strategy. In fact, investing in the wellbeing of our sons, brothers and partners – who make up roughly half our population – benefits all Kiwis.

There’s no question that we should make men’s health a priority. The only question is, will we?

Jehan Casinader is an ambassador for Men’s Health Week (10-16 June).