Last night I participated in a time-honored ritual that dates back thousands of years, one I have participated in since the young age of eighteen. A lifelong friend joined me on my patio where we enjoyed Cuban cigars (purchased during my recent trip to Spain) and Indigeny brandy.
This ritual, performed by many tribes through millennia, has been critical to my personal development. As a young man, I would sit with contemporaries, and sometimes with mentors, as we shared the intimate details of our lives over cigars. It was during this ritual that I would discover the problems that troubled my friends. It’s where I learned I was not alone, that the struggles I felt—to find a meaningful career, discover love (or recover from rejection), define my life’s purpose—were also felt by my contemporaries. And now, as I recreate this ritual in my middle age, sharing and laughing at the embarrassing stories of raising kids, running a business, and dating, I find continued relief in the universal themes shared with my friends. My mistakes, while they may be mine, are not unique. My foibles are shared with many men just like me, all across the nation, and I suspect, to an extent, throughout time.
November is Men’s Health Month. Perhaps you have heard of #Movember, or my preferred #NoShaveNovember. I have participated in these campaigns that raise awareness for men’s health issues for the past three years. The first year I participated in #Movember, I quickly realized how much I prefer my face covered in hair! Raising awareness for men’s health issues is long overdue. For the last thirty years, October has overwhelmingly become known as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Everything from the NFL to KFC turns pink in October—a worthwhile cause. These campaigns are not in competition for awareness, but should be seen as offering balance. Statistics continue to show that the most effective advocates for men’s health are women. Women are responsible for 70 percent of health care decisions in most homes. Men are simply not stepping up to advocate for their own health in the way women do for them—evidenced in part by the fact that men live six years less than women, on average. We men need to step it up, especially those of us living alone or with just our children.
As I began my journey toward educating myself about men’s health, I turned to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for some statistics. Of greatest interest to me were the leading causes of death, because let’s face it I want to prevent my untimely demise. I was profoundly disturbed when I found the following results. For men ages 35 to 44 the leading causes of death are:
1. Unintentional injury 27.3%
2. Heart Disease 15.3%
3. Suicide 13.5%
4. Cancer 11.5%
5. Chronic liver disease 4.2%
Suicide. I find this alarming. Men my age, men like me, burdened by the stress of everyday life, are tapping out. Even more alarming, suicide is actually the second leading cause of death for men in the four other age brackets, starting as early as age ten. Men are particularly affected by the mental strains that result in suicides and account for three out of four suicide deaths. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, 510,000 men die from suicide globally each year—one every minute.
Suicide and mental health are nothing to be made light of. Certainly, some suffer from clinical depression and brain chemistry that crushes their human spirit. For those, professional and chemical interventions are required, and the stigma attached to both of these should be diminished.
In some cases, however, and who knows what percentage this represents, men need to both rely on and support each other. In the tribe of men that I gather with, much is shared, and a bond has formed over the issues that plague our spirits. Whether it be loss, failure, depression, or loneliness, each has, in my case, been aided by a hand up by the tribe of men who I have imbibed and smoked with.
I do not broach the issue of smoking and drinking as a tool for improving men’s health casually. A brief glance at the list above reveals that alcoholism and cigarette smoking contribute greatly to three of the five causes of death in men my age (heart disease, cancer, and chronic liver disease respectively). However, in moderation, a glass of whiskey and a cigar have long proven to be a contributor to the joie de vivre! And the point here is not the vice that you connect over, but the connection itself.
So fellow men, it’s time we make more time for each other, that we make a date with our tribe, to raise a glass and/or share in some classic vices, and discuss our lives. Good and bad, successes and setbacks, it’s time we stand up for each other’s health and get each other’s backs. Buy that cup of coffee or grab a lunch with a friend and hear them out. It may just be that relief valve they need, or the one you didn’t know you needed. Great news is that when we get together, everyone wins.