Shaved bare: what are the Parties offering on men’s healthCarver Oakley, Client Executive
As November draws to a close so does Men’s Health Awareness Month, concluding ‘Movember’ which sees top lips across the nation liberated from their hairy oppressors. However, behind the jokes about inadequate facial hair (at least in my case) this month is important to bring to the fore the crisis facing men’s health, particularly mental health.
The statistics paint a harrowing picture. Suicide is the biggest cause of death in men under the age of 50 and around three quarters of deaths from suicide each year are men. Considering this, it is unsurprising that men report significantly lower life satisfaction than women in the Government’s national well-being survey. Both a cause and a consequence, we also see that men are simultaneously three times more likely to be addicted to alcohol and to be more frequent users of drugs than women.
The stark numbers are not resigned to mental health alone. 75% of premature deaths from heart disease are male. Middle-aged men are twice as likely to have diabetes as women. And, unfortunately, the most common cancer in men, prostate cancer, develops slowly with symptoms rarely noticeable for many years – preventing early diagnosis.
Most worryingly of all is that despite the negative health outcomes faced by Britain’s men, both main political parties appear to be lacking in their proposals to change this reality. Mental health garners limited attention in current political debates while only one in five think the mental health system is working well according to the think tank More In Common. Yet, further polling by the think tank shows that tackling the mental health crisis is a vote winner. Two in five voters say mental health will be an important election issue for them - a number that grows for typical Red-wall voters and Tory-Labour switchers.
In light of this, the Labour Party’s recent fall out over mental health is surprising. In September of this year the former Shadow Minister for Mental Health, Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, resigned from the Labour Front Bench because Sir Keir Starmer decided to demote the portfolio from Cabinet. Though the move was not widely controversial, the current Minister for Mental Health does not attend Cabinet, it indicated a reorganisation of priorities for Starmer’s Labour. Whether Labour would admit it or not, it was a sign that mental health now sits lower on its current political agenda than it previously did.
However, this was a reordering of priorities, Labour have not completely abandoned the mental health crisis. They have committed to expanding the NHS workforce by recruiting 8,500 mental health staff, creating community mental health hubs for children, introducing professional support in schools, and investing in mental health research. Despite this, it is hard to argue that Labour are prioritising men’s health and any proposals now are made with the usual caveats of opposition and the party’s strict adherence to fiscal responsibility.
The Government have similarly failed to grip the challenge and enact meaningful change. The Conservatives have been criticised by mental health organisations, such as Mind, The British Psychological Society, and Tough Enough to Care, who have argued that despite the Mental Health Act being a key Conservative manifesto commitment in both 2017 and 2019, the Mental Health Bill did not appear in the most recent King’s Speech. Much like Labour, the Government continue to promote other issues over mental health, despite recognising its importance.
Again, as with Labour, there has been debate about how to tackle this issue, if a little haphazardly. One such example was the idea of creating of a Minister for Men, put forward most recently by Nick Fletcher MP. He argues that men are in crisis, from poor physical health brought on by poorer life outcomes and poor mental health. Fletcher argues that there is "very little focus" to address these issues, with the current political status quo implying that "only women have problems and only men are problems". However, many have pointed out that such a suggestion is quite a blunt instrument to solve health problems that impact different men differently. For instance, although men are more likely to be sectioned than women, black men are five times more likely to be sectioned than white men.
Both Parties are clearly aware of the crisis facing men’s health, yet both seem satisfied with doing far more talking than action. Perhaps most concerningly, that debate appears to lean into the intangible, failing to grip the key drivers, nuances and, yes, eventual solutions. Male suicide, in particular, is a long way from being resolved and with so many contributing factors a solution will likely be hard to find. This is not an excuse for inaction, if we are to see an improvement in men’s health the reintroduction of the Mental Health Bill alongside a comprehensive mental health strategy that sees specialists in schools, hospitals, and workplaces is needed. Each November need not mark the crisis in men’s health. Instead, a reprioritisation among the political class might mean future Men’s Health Months are celebrations.