This article was published on May 6th, 2015
Mention the word health to a gay man and the word sexual is often presumed to be automatically added to it. Gay men’s health organizations have focused their resources on sexual health as if it were the primary, or even only, health issue that affects gay men. As HIV’s impact and severity recedes, it is necessary for these organizations to refocus their energy and dollars to the other health issues affecting gay men across North America, tailoring them to target the issues most prevalent in their local community. Here are a few of the health issues that affect gay men in far higher proportions than they affect straight men.
1. Depression and anxiety. Whether it’s a result of current or past discrimination or bullying, or just the stress of being a minority, gay men suffer from higher rates of severe depression and anxiety. Unfortunately there’s no simple way to alleviate these disorders. It usually requires ongoing psychotherapy, sometimes combined with medication, in order to bring someone out of what can seem like a bottomless pit. Gay men’s health organizations can assist by providing affordable counseling for gay men, something that is financially out of reach for many if not most gay men. Campaigns to reduce stigma and encourage discussion of mental health are also needed.
2. Suicide. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death amongst men and it is even higher amongst gay men. This is undoubtedly linked to the high rates of depression and anxiety amongst gay men. Gay men’s health organizations can help by providing applied suicide intervention skills training so gay men can recognize the signs of potential suicide amongst their friends and lovers and intervene when there is a concern.
3. Alcohol and drugs. Alcohol and drug abuse also plagues the gay community, a community with a heavy focus on bars as social spaces and sexual habits tied to drug use. Unfortunately, it can be hard to quit these habits without feeling the need to cut yourself off from that very same community or from the sexual practices you’ve grown accustomed to. As well, traditional support groups for treating addiction can be difficult for gay men as they need to open up about their personal lives and may feel uncomfortable doing that in front of a mostly straight group. Providing social activities outside of bars, sex counseling to think of less harmful ways of having sex, and setting up queer addiction support groups are some of the ways in which gay men’s health organizations can help.
4. Smoking. Depression makes it more difficult to quit smoking while simultaneously increasing the likelihood of anxiety. In addition to using nicotine replacements, talking therapies are proven to help increase quit smoking success rates. This can be provided as individual sessions or in group sessions. Gay-focused ones can help gay men open up more and discussion the issues that they feel smoking helps with.
5. Eating disorders. When it comes to eating disorders, gay men are more similar to women. The community’s heavy focus on particular standards of beauty, coupled with a greater view of the body as a sexual object, takes a toll on the health of many gay men. Campaigns to promote body acceptance, changing the images our community uses to promote events, and providing affordable counseling are ways in which gay men’s health organizations and the community at large can help.
6.Fitness. Regular exercise is good for your health. However, there are a couple of caveats. That statement refers to fitness – not creating some beautiful body with huge muscles. Extreme fitness can cause the body to deteriorate more quickly. And the use of steroids and certain nutritional supplements can be harmful to your health. A heavy fitness regime should only be started after getting a check-up from your physician and with the advice of a professional, such as an accredited trainer.
7. Domestic violence. Domestic violence affects gay men just as it affects heterosexual couples. Whether it is suffering from minority stress, past trauma, or low self esteem, gay men both abuse and allow themselves to be abused. The difference is that there is stigma around men admitting to being abused and that there are few resources available for men, let alone gay men. Most organizations only provide services to women, even though the issues involved and counseling needed is identical. Furthermore, these organizations don’t provide services to abusers, gay men who need just as much help. Breaking the silence and providing support services (potentially coordinated nationwide with organizations in other cities to provide economies of scale) are ways in which gay men’s health organizations can help.
8. Routine health care. Fear of homophobia or stigma often prevents gay men from seeking routine health care. Over time, this can have a heavy impact on a man’s health as problems go untreated and undiagnosed. Gay men’s health organizations can help by compiling a database of gay and gay –friendly physicians and, if in the United States, cross-referenced to insurance providers.
9. Cancer. In addition to prostate, testicular, and colon cancers that men are susceptible to, gay men are at greater risk for anal cancers. Routine screening with anal Pap smears, similar to those done on women, is needed for early detection. Gay men’s health organizations need to educate gay men so that they are aware of this issue and how to bring it up with their health care provider. As well, they need to educate physicians so that they are aware that gay men are at greater risk and require regular screening.