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Male health promotion across Australia has been patchy at best. Some health services – especially rural ones, have taken up this issue with real commitment, others have been less keen to venture into this territory discouraged by the many negative stereotypes about masculinity, male help-seeking, resistance to health messages, and men’s presumed disinterest in taking care of their health.

Those health services that have thoughtfully sought out knowledge about men beyond these stereotypes and the male demeaning mass media commentary of ‘gender experts’, have in fact found that with a basic knowledge of male psychology informing their efforts, they almost always meet with success with male health promotion events. And they have done this without using gimmicks or silly ‘blokey’ slogans. Understanding something of the male experience and engaging with men in a respectful way, treating them as men – as distinct from how one would relate to and communicate with women, are vital ingredients of their success. To understand better the range of factors worth considering in health messaging and service delivery aimed at engaging with men, the following comparison may prove useful.

Imagine you were sent to an outback Aboriginal community to set up a health service, tasked with educating people about their health and assisting them with a variety of services. Surely, the first thing you’d consider is consulting with recognised community leaders, gaining their perception of community’s health needs, and building a relationship of trust and cooperation? You would also need to pay much attention to their culture: language, preferred modes of communication, beliefs, perceptions about health, illness, wellness, and help-seeking; social and interpersonal norms, social psychology, and cultural gender role expectations. You’d consider logistical and access issues: how far people will need to travel and when they might be most available to access services. You’d also consider: How will our service be perceived (and what can we do that is most conducive to this being positive)? And, will people feel comfortable and safe coming into our service delivery environment (how might we need to design or modify this to best fit with the people we are hoping will use our services)?

If you didn’t consider these issues and, having established your service found that it wasn’t adequately utilised by your target clients, how fair would it be for you to blame them for the failure of your service? How reasonable would it be to blame this failure on their inadequate help-seeking behaviour, or on the characteristics of their culture? The answer is obvious, and the word outrageous perhaps comes to mind.

Consider another specific cultural group in our society, one with a constantly poor general health profile, one with alarmingly high rates of suicide, one that is known for its poor take-up of health and mental health services; a cultural group responsible for nearly all the dirty, dangerous and health diminishing occupations in our society (and one very much at risk of poor health outcomes), men.

Yes, it is both legitimate and helpful to think of males as a cultural group in need of a similar set of considerations. And it should be no less outrageous when any failure to engage effectively with this group is conveniently blamed on the behaviour or culture of its individuals. The fact that men often have been blamed in precisely these ways, should cause us to seriously question why health policy and institutions that are pledged to uphold charters of healthcare rights, and equity in health, have permitted this.

For those health services who take seriously the need to engage with men, not just because they must, but because they believe men matter, some ‘rules of thumb’ to help guide and inform male health messaging and service engagement are provided below. Just as in the example of engaging with an Aboriginal community, there are a range of cultural, psychological, and contextual considerations:

  • Consult with key men of your target audience to get a feel for the kind of language and idioms they use. Get their perspective on how best to communicate messages to men in the community, and how best to engage those men that might benefit from services.
  • Research the cultural beliefs, and peculiarities of men in the community; how do they perceive health, wellness, illness, and help-seeking? Key into cultural beliefs and practices of men, and identify the kind of general manhood culture that is most evident.
  • What are the issues men might have about service access? When might they be most amenable to attending appointments? What kind of environmental factors might influence their preparedness to use services?
  • What are the kind of cultural gender role expectations at play in the community? These may be anything from quite liberal to quite conservative. The harsher the conditions of men’s occupational lives, the more conservative these roles are likely to be.
  • Consider what it might mean to conduct health messaging and to deliver services in a way that is male respectful and friendly, and that offers genuine protections of privacy and confidentiality for men.

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