How to advance men’s health

Donnovan Somera Yisrael, MA, has been a wellness/prevention educator in the Health Promotion Services (HPS) unit of Stanford University's Vaden Health Center (I Thrive @ Stanford) since 1998, and he is currently manager of sexual and emotional health programs. In his position, he addresses a wide variety of health issues such as alcohol abuse, sexual health, sexuality/sexual identity, sexual assault, relationship abuse and body image. BeWell spoke with Donnovan about men’s health, and specifically the obstacles and opportunities for improving the overall health and wellness of men in our community and country.

Is it true that men are less likely to visit the doctor or mental health professional than are women?

I believe that the phenomenon of men neglecting their health generally as compared with women has been solidly established. Dr. Will Courtenay — “The Men’s Doc” — is right here in the Bay Area and he has been studying and working to change this dynamic for many years.

Why do you think men see their doctors so much less often than do women?

I’ve built my career on observing how gender roles affect health, and I endeavor to enlighten people to this phenomenon. I began with the topic of sexual health; that is, I examined how gender roles encourage behavior that leads to negative sexual health outcomes. Over the years, as I’ve dug deeper into “why people do risky things,” it has become evident that culture (broadly defined) is a huge factor in these risky behaviors, and in turn gender roles/stereotypes play powerful roles in the culture that influences our behavior.  Whether we are talking about wearing sunscreen, body image/eating disorders, alcohol/drug abuse or sexual/relationship violence, gender “rules” play a major role.

What tips can you give men who want to better manage their physical, social, emotional, and spiritual health?

This is a great question and the answer is within the question. When most people hear the word “health,” they think mainly of physical health (e.g., nutrition, hydration, exercise, regular checkups). However, we all have crucial parts of our beings other than the physical body and the intellectual brain. We have to nurture and maintain all these parts because it only takes one weak or broken “link in the chain” for our wellness to be compromised, even damaged.

Are you suggesting that emotional health is at the core of physical health?

Well, they are certainly interconnected. Put it this way: if/when you have a big life problem/issue, it is not likely to be an intellectual problem you can solve using the same brain you use to solve physics problem sets. The really powerful events and issues in life are “problem sets in the realm of our emotions or our spirit.” For example, when someone we love deeply says, “I don’t want to see you anymore,” our academic/intellectual brain is not much help. Heartbreak/rejection is a powerful emotional wound. We must first validate this fact for males and then teach them how to provide “first aid” and then long term care for this wound.

How do emotions play a role in good health-care decision-making?

Emotions are powerful sources of information. If we are illiterate in or in denial of these messages, the consequences to our health can be dire. Daniel Goleman helped coin the term “emotional intelligence” when he released his book (by the same name, Emotional Intelligence) in 1995. In the same vein, Daniel J. Siegel wrote about the “3 R’s for Education: Reflection, Relationships and Resilience.”  We need to teach male-identified people (as well as everyone else) about the existence of and crucial importance of our emotional and spiritual selves

If men could do take just one action to improve the state of their health, what would it be?

Men need to be persuaded and educated that in order to best maintain health, they must find a healthy way of asking for help. They must pursue health maintenance and self-care without concern that doing so means they are weak or not “real men.” I would advise men to consider the football player, Andrew Luck, who has a quarterbacks coach working with him daily. So why do so many men think they don’t need a coach, too? And in the area of health, that coach is a health provider and/or mentor. I would recommend starting with an assessment using a multifaceted model, such as an online “life wheel,” and certainly the online health assessment and biometric screening that is part of BeWell could provide valuable starting data, especially since it leads to follow-up advising and coaching where men (and of course women) can talk about all different aspects of their health — beyond physical health — to see what obstacles they might need to overcome to achieve a healthier future. 

What can we do to support the men in our lives to take better care of themselves?

I’ve heard it said that whereas women are objectified via their bodies and how they look, the objectification of men is through their work (i.e., money, power, achievement, what they produce). Consequently, what we find is that a man’s health issues may be tied to doing, earning, or achieving — whether the factors be work addiction here in Silicon valley, stress-related illness in midlife, teen male drivers in car or motorcycle crashes, the taking of performance enhancing drugs, or playing sports while concussed. While both males and females suffer from all I’ve mentioned, gender-role socialization is still a very powerful reality.

So, what can we do? We must work to challenge what it means to be a guy, boy, man, father, etc. in 2015 and beyond. This issue is dealt with so brilliantly in the film The Mask You Live In by Jennifer Siebel Newsom. I recommend it to everyone. I have also created a presentation called: “You Can’t Be Happy If You Can’t Be Sad: How Emotional Intelligence Leads to Improved Presence, Resilience & Relationships.”