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Fathers need a men's health strategy, not soundbites about masculinity

Earlier this year, shadow health secretary Wes Streeting announced that a Labour government would consider introducing a men’s health strategy.
men playing basketball

That’s great news. Back in 2022, we joined the Men’s Health Forum and others to call for this. There’s a growing awareness globally, of the need for more action on men’s health. And in the UK, the data speaks for itself (see box).

 

Disappointingly, Mr Streeting’s rationale focused on the need to solve a ‘crisis in masculinity’ – which seems to lay the blame for our country’s poor male health outcomes on men themselves, rather than on services’ failure to make space for men. 

 

Fatherhood is a clear case in point. It’s central to most men’s lives, and fathers’ health outcomes matter hugely: not just to themselves but also to their partners and children, and to the UK economy. Yet the paternal journey still goes unrecognised in NHS service design.


 

Fathers' health is ignored

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and the theme is ‘movement’. So let’s look at obesity, which is linked to depression, as an example of how fathers’ health is ignored and could be better addressed.

 

In the age brackets where most men first become fathers, around a quarter of men in England are obese, and another two-fifths overweight [note 1]. There’s evidence that expectant and new fathers gain weight; one study found that fathers weigh 14 pounds more, on average, than childless men. Another found that young men who became fathers reduced their exercising by five hours per week. We know fathers’ and mothers’ overweight interact, and research also shows that parents’ obesity impacts on children’s: if both your parents are obese, you’re six times more likely to be obese yourself by middle age.

 

happy man cycling

Yet when a man becomes a father in the UK, there’s no ‘paternity service’ to help him lose weight (nor to stop smoking, or otherwise look after his health). No mandated GP check-up, or official ‘dad information’ pack. No requirement for maternity professionals to spend even five minutes asking how he is, identifying support needs, or signposting him to relevant services [note 2].

 

Fathers use health services less than mothers do, and our analysis of GP Patient Survey suggests their working commitments are a barrier [note 3]. Fathers are much more likely than mothers, and non-fathers, to be in full-time employment [note 4] – especially when their children are very young. These men are doing what society expects of them, spending most of their waking hours in paid work, providing for their families. They have less time for health appointments. They may also feel their own problems are less important than others’ [note 5]. But services do little to suggest otherwise.


 

The Health & Social Care Committee's Men's Health Inquiry

Our evidence to the inquiry called for three key changes to support systematic father-inclusive practice in the NHS:

  • Perinatal paternal health checks [note 6]

  • Targeted information for new fathers

  • Pilots to explore how best to link fathers’ and childrens’ health records [note 7]

None would be especially expensive to implement, given men’s overwhelming presence in perinatal services.

 

Yet, in her oral evidence to the inquiry last week, Minister for Mental Health and Women’s Health Strategy Maria Caulfield made a shocking admission, in response to fellow Conservative MP James Morris, who had asked what more should be done to support fathers’ mental health and child attachments:

 

“It is something we have not really looked at. We are doing a huge piece of work with the maternity disparities group on preconception, because we often wait for women to be pregnant and having babies before we recognise that there is some work that we could be doing to have better outcomes. That is probably solely focused on the mum, rather than parents as a whole.”

 

Going on to talk about improving family-focused support for bereaved families, she added:

“We are really taking that very seriously. We are not at the other end, I would say”.

 

Less a crisis of masculinity, then, and more a failure of our tax-funded health system, and the elected representatives who preside over it, to recognise men’s everyday needs, and design services that address them.


 

Looking ahead
man and child exercising

Whichever political party forms the next government, let’s hope it delivers a men’s health strategy to fill the gap. Ideally one that’s free of soundbites about men’s perceived failings, and that engages seriously with the actual challenges they face. Like wanting to be the best father you can while striving to provide economically for your family – and feeling invisible in the process. 


Read more about our work on fathers and health on our policy page.


 

Key data about men's health in the UK
  • Men in the UK live four years less than women on average – 79 years compared to 83 years – with men in the most deprived areas living just 73.5 years.

 

  • Men are more likely than women to die prematurely from cancers, cardiovascular disease and respiratory diseases – including occupational lung diseases, pneumonia and tuberculosis.

 

  • They are also more likely to experience the risk factors that make developing CVD more likely and could be reduced through preventive approaches – such as high blood pressure, smoking, being overweight, type 2 diabetes, and high cholesterol.

 

  • Suicide and schizophrenia are more common in men. Reported rates of anxiety and depressive disorders are higher among women, but evidence suggests a high rate of under-reporting among men.

 

  • The percentage of fathers attending GP appointments who had a long-term mental health condition rose from 6% in 2018 to 10% in 2023; for young fathers the figure was 14% in 2023.


Sources for the above key data:

(1-4) Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology (POST), 2023. POSTbrief 56: Men's Health. UK Parliament. DOI

(5) Fatherhood Institute analysis of data from GP Patient Survey 2018-23

 

References

Note 1: 23% of men aged 25-34 are obese and 38% overweight; 26% of men aged 35-44 are obese and 44% overweight. Source: NHS Digital Health Survey for England 2021.

Note 2: For more on this, see our evidence reviews Who’s the Bloke in the Room? (antenatal) and Bringing Baby Home (postnatal).

Note 3: In 2023, more than half (53%) of fathers, compared to two-fifths (40%) of mothers, said their most recent appointment with their GP was more than three months ago. More than a fifth (22%) of fathers said their most recent appointment was over a year ago. Fathers’ work commitments are a clear obstacle: less than two-fifths (39%) of fathers in full-time paid work said they’d seen their GP within the last three months, compared to almost half (48%) of fathers in part-time roles.

Note 4: In Quarter 3 of 2022-3, 93.2% of men with dependent children were in full-time employment, compared to 75.3% of women with dependent children, and 73.1% of men without dependent children.

Note 5: For more on this, see Paul Hodkinson and Ranjana Das’ book New Fathers, Mental Health and Digital Communication.

Note 6: We also highlighted that while the 2018 NHS Long Term Plan promised mental health checks for fathers/partners of women suffering from mental health problems, such provision has not yet materialised. We believe this whilst this subgroup of fathers needs particularly urgent attention, ALL fathers should be asked how they are, and referred for specialist support if indicated.

Note 7: These are also highlighted in our Manifesto for Supporting Paternal Caregiving.


 

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