It may normally be home to people like Mike Denver and Philiomena Begley, but the big ballroom of the McWilliam Park Hotel in Claremorris was the unlikely scene for what could only be described as a testing and challenging journey into the hearts and minds of us men last week – when the former Roscommon inter-county GAA manager Kevin McStay and four other incisive guest speakers handed out some very plain speaking and ever-so-difficult home truths for the attendance in the hotel to take on and try and stomach.
The occasion was an International Men’s Health Week symposium entitled ‘Men’s Minds Matter’, organised by Roscommon LEADER Partnership and the HSE. Present were up to 300 men and women from all over the west – including, I might say, a very sizeable representation from the Men’s sheds movement in our local district. They were led by Pat Towey and the Ballaghderreen shed group, and ably supported by the man from the newly-formed Roscommon town men’s group – Tom Harrison – who seems to have an endless supply of energy.
The men’s health week gig is an annual event – offering what the experts say is an ideal opportunity for everyone to do their bit to improve the health of men and boys. On Thursday evening there seemed to be an early and immediate clamour to do just that first as several dozen hardy men were in the room way before 7 o’clock in the queue to have their blood pressure checked by the professional nurses from CROI who were present.
Over the last few weeks I have been trying to encourage more and more males in my own company to go along to this gig – and for very good reasons. The facts about men’s health are quite scary: we die younger than women do. We have higher death rates than females for almost all of the leading causes of death (and at all ages). Quite bluntly, our lifestyles are responsible for a high proportion of chronic diseases. As if we didn’t already know, we as a male tribe are not great at getting out to see the doctor either, so late presentation to health services can lead to a large number of problems becoming untreatable in men. Broken down, I’m afraid the stats are even worse.
In 2018, the four main causes of death among males across the island of Ireland were neoplasms (invasive cancers), circulatory system diseases, respiratory system diseases, and external causes of injury and poisoning. Standardised Mortality Rates were highest among males in the most deprived areas, those with only primary education, unskilled workers, widowed men, those who were not carers, and males with a disability.
Kevin McStay was the first special guest at the podium on Thursday night and gave what might be described as his own personal guide to what George Hook used to call ‘the happiness index’ on his now abandoned Newstalk show on a Friday evening. McStay is a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Defence Forces and what I might call a ‘man’s man’. As a successful GAA football manager he has had to be a manager of men’s minds and bodies, for starters, and I think that experience of frequently looking after 20 or 30 young lads’ lifestyles, built up over all the years, has helped him to become a very decent expert on how important it is to be surrounded by people of a good positive disposition and what effect that in turn can have on your own mind.
I particularly liked Kevin’s story of his mother’s positivity – personified at her 90th birthday – and the solid advice he gave to us all not to hang around with what he called the “drainers” of this world. These, Kevin explained, are the people of a negative or pessimistic disposition who will continuously tell you how bad the world has been to them and how terrible it all is – the sort of daily and weekly conversation level that will eventually drag you down into the same pessimistic state of mind and drain away all your positivity.
Stressors out there
Next up was Castlebar-based clinical psychologist John Canavan. A vastly experienced professional, Canavan did most of his training and studying in the USA and gave the audience a really informative guide to wellbeing and the stressors that impact upon mental health, when exactly you might know professional help is needed, the types of professional help available, and what are the differences between psychiatry, psychology, counselling and psychotherapy.
John told his audience that while in the past men were hesitant to seek help when needed, this is changing. Nowadays, more than 50 per cent of the clients who come to see him at his Castlebar rooms are male. Changed times indeed. I particularly liked the analogy he used to try and give us men an example of how important balance is in the context of keeping ourselves well. He equated it to a four-legged stool situation where the four issues all held equal importance if we were to say safely seated – at the bar counter or otherwise – the issues being our diet, out fitness regime, our mental health and how we look after our body at work and play, all four being equally key factors.
Ballindine doctor Ken Egan was, for me, one of the best speakers of Thursday night. Now in his 70s and retired, this GP gave us the clearest guide I have ever heard to the top 50 issues that men normally bring in through the doors of any medical practice.
All the old chestnuts were there. Ken put a huge significance on key threats such as suicide and unhealthy lifestyle of course, but he also had critical advice for the audience of some elderly men when he told them to stop beating about the bush when they go in to see the GP.
“Say it out – what’s up with you” he advised, “there can be no place for beating around the bush when it comes to your health. The doctor can’t help you if you don’t tell him what exactly is up with you and make no bones about that”.
Mayo All Star and Aussie Rules star Cora Staunton was the second last speaker at the symposium. Staunton, now a well polished TV performer and analyst with The Sunday Game, spoke about all her work with the HSE in helping agencies to address men’s needs – especially in the travelling community where she spoke of the horrific statistics that prove how more likely a man is to die younger there because of his lifestyle. It’s a sobering reflection on our society here.
Our final speaker on Thursday was Andy Nolan, a 26-year-old mechanical fitter from Stradbally in County Laois. His personal story brought us from his early days being bullied at school through his apprenticeship and into the tough times that he lived through (like so many others) when he lost his job after the Celtic Tiger collapse in 2007. His life story was delivered ‘warts and all’. It was brave of him to tell it and challenging for us to listen to, but it also reflected the reality of living with depression in this country and of finding a way to get help – as Andy has so successfully done.
*For more on Men’s Health Week get the facts at https://www.mhfi.org/mhw/about-mhw.html