Males may be less able to cope men­tally with strain of pan­demic, writes John Izzo.

Vancouver Sun - - OPIN­ION - John Izzo is an ad­junct pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of B.C. and co-founder of The Men’s Ini­tia­tive.

Men need to be en­cour­aged to talk about what is hap­pen­ing to them emo­tion­ally, and we all need to not ac­cept a stoic ‘I’m fine’ an­swer. Since men may be more likely to ‘suck it up,’ we need to reach out and dig deeper. John Izzo

In a time filled with new re­al­i­ties, peo­ple are ask­ing many ques­tions about the pub­lic-health con­cerns of this pan­demic. One of these is: Why are more men dy­ing of COVID-19? A sec­ond, less-ex­plored ques­tion is: How might this cri­sis im­pact men so­cially?

Ac­cord­ing to in­ter­na­tional data gath­ered by BMJ Global Health, while the COVID-19 virus in­fects men and women equally, it ap­pears men are 50 per cent more likely to die from it than women of the same age. There are two po­ten­tial hy­pothe­ses: Firstly, men are more likely to en­gage in un­healthy be­hav­iour such as smok­ing and al­co­hol abuse, thereby driv­ing higher lev­els of un­der­ly­ing con­di­tions. Se­condly, men have cer­tain bi­o­log­i­cal fac­tors, such as re­cep­tors con­trolled by a gene on the X chro­mo­some, hor­monal dif­fer­ences and dif­fer­ent im­mune re­sponses that make them more vul­ner­a­ble.

We be­lieve that it’s not just men’s phys­i­cal im­mune sys­tem that makes COVID-19 par­tic­u­larly dan­ger­ous for them. It is quite likely that the emo­tional and so­cial “im­mune” sys­tem of men, and that of dom­i­nant male cul­ture, pose a sig­nif­i­cant risk to pub­lic health.

At The Men’s Ini­tia­tive, af­fil­i­ated with the Fac­ulty of Medicine at the Univer­sity of B.C., we have sev­eral decades of ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing with groups of men, in­clud­ing mil­i­tary, pro­tec­tive ser­vices, univer­sity ath­letes and busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives. Our ex­pe­ri­ence sug­gests that men are of­ten less able to talk about emo­tional chal­lenges, and be­cause of this, are of­ten less re­silient in the face of var­i­ous life stres­sors. Their re­silience is fur­ther com­pro­mised by the fact that men have been shown to have fewer in­ti­mate friend­ships, weaker so­cial sup­port sys­tems, and are much less likely to ask for help when they need it, es­pe­cially on mat­ters of men­tal health. This is par­tic­u­larly true of men in mid-life and older.

Men are also more likely than women to trans­late emo­tional suf­fer­ing into vi­o­lent acts, sub­stance abuse, and are more likely to die from sui­cide. Put these men un­der the acute pres­sure of lost jobs, eco­nomic hard­ship, so­cial iso­la­tion and loss of mean­ing and iden­tity, and this could have dra­mat­i­cally neg­a­tive con­se­quences for men, fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties. Across the coun­try, we are see­ing the harm­ful ef­fects of this cri­sis with a rise in do­mes­tic vi­o­lence calls, an in­crease in liquor sales, and higher in­ci­dence of calls to cri­sis phone lines. Van­cou­ver Bat­tered Women’s Sup­port Ser­vices says their staff have seen a 300-per-cent in­crease in calls over the last three weeks. The or­ga­ni­za­tion re­ports that 40 per cent are first-time callers reach­ing out. Even the United Na­tions has rec­og­nized a global rise in do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and called for ur­gent mea­sures to ad­dress what UN Chief An­to­nio Guter­res called a “hor­ri­fy­ing global surge” in do­mes­tic vi­o­lence. We rightly need to take im­me­di­ate steps to pro­tect women and vul­ner­a­ble fam­i­lies, but we must also rec­og­nize the dan­gers for men who are not abusers in the form of ad­dic­tion, de­pres­sion and po­ten­tial sui­cide.

To be sure, women and those who iden­tify with other gen­ders also find this time equally chal­leng­ing, but men in our so­ci­ety may be less able to adapt to the present cri­sis. Men are of­ten not as intentiona­l about “check­ing in” to see how each other are do­ing. Men need to be en­cour­aged to talk about what is hap­pen­ing to them emo­tion­ally, and we all need to not ac­cept a stoic “I’m fine” an­swer.

Since men may be more likely to “suck it up,” we need to reach out and dig deeper to find out how the men in our lives are re­ally do­ing. In our so­ci­ety, men are of­ten so­cial­ized in a way that makes anger a more ac­cept­able emo­tion than sad­ness, which is of­ten as­so­ci­ated with be­ing weak. To build re­silience in men dur­ing this time of cri­sis, we need to en­cour­age men to speak out about their ex­pe­ri­ences, and in so do­ing, give other men the courage to share their own sto­ries.

The team at The Men’s Ini­tia­tive has decades of ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing with pre­dom­i­nantly male work cul­tures, such as the mil­i­tary and fire­fight­ing, get­ting peo­ple to tell their sto­ries and to be heard by oth­ers has proven to im­prove re­siliency un­der con­tin­u­ing stress. Our work with fire­fight­ers and men with prostate can­cer has shown that rates of de­pres­sion and sui­cide are greatly re­duced by hav­ing men talk about their ex­pe­ri­ences.

There is a time and place for men to be stoic, but this is not it. We all have a vi­tal role to play in cre­at­ing the con­di­tions for men to break their si­lence, stand­ing be­side them as they speak coura­geously about their ex­pe­ri­ences and strug­gles. As one vet­eran put it: “Any­one can go get drunk, but sit­ting down sober and talk­ing about what’s re­ally go­ing on takes real courage.”

Many of the men in our pro­grams have said, “This is the first time I have told any­one about this.” The price of such si­lence in a time like this may be dev­as­tat­ing.

The longer the present sit­u­a­tion ex­tends, the greater pres­sure the COVID-19 cri­sis will put on men and fam­i­lies. While we are all rightly fo­cused on stop­ping the spread of this virus, we may well need to look deeper at the se­ri­ous emo­tional, psy­cho­log­i­cal and re­la­tion­ship toll that these mea­sures are tak­ing and will con­tinue to take for the com­ing months. In Canada, sur­veys show men are not as con­cerned about the pan­demic as women are. This should be a source of pub­lic con­cern since it may turn out that men are not only more vul­ner­a­ble to the virus but also to the im­pacts of the im­posed pub­lic health mea­sures.

There is a time and place for men to be stoic, but this is not it.


Men are of­ten less able to talk about emo­tional chal­lenges, and be­cause of this, are of­ten less re­silient in the face of var­i­ous life’s stres­sors. They also have fewer in­ti­mate friend­ships and have weaker so­cial sup­port sys­tems, writes John Izzo.

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