Man up: young men get arthritis too

by Simon Stones

Man up. Grin and bear it. You’re a man, aren’t you? Act like one then. Most men in the world will have heard phrases like these at some point in their lives, especially if they don’t fit into society’s definition of masculinity. Men are supposed to be tough, right?

Gender stereotypes

Gender stereotypes have been around for a long time. Although things are changing, they’re not changing fast enough. Men are viewed as people who should be opinionated, untouchable and resilient to anything and everything. Emotions are a big no-no – men certainly don’t cry. Generations before us have created and perpetuated a false vision of masculinity, which begins during childhood. Boys are encouraged to suppress their natural emotions, since ‘boys don’t cry’. Men are expected to be big and strong, just like their fathers. These pre-conceived gender roles and stereotypes are damaging not only individuals, but society.

Sadly, the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK is suicide, and of the estimated 6000 lives lost to suicide in the UK each year, almost 75% of those are male. Putting it simply, most men refuse to talk about their emotions. Their feelings and emotions are suppressed, like a smouldering fire. But, there reaches a time when flames emerge, and those underlying feelings and emotions develop into anxiety, anger and depression.

Arthritis and masculinity

When we throw arthritis into the mix, things look even more gloomy. As well as dealing with challenges that most people will face in their lives, those with arthritis must deal with the physical and psychological effects of living with a long-term health condition. Arthritis doesn’t just affect your health either. It can affect your education, working life and social life. If the right support is not available, this can feed a vicious cycle which can remove all the pleasures that you had in your life.

Research also shows that for most autoimmune diseases, there is a clear gender difference, whereby females are generally more frequently affected than males. This is typically the case for conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and all but one sub-type of juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) – that is enthesitis-related JIA (the childhood counterpart to ankylosing
spondylitis), which is more common in boys than girls. However, trust me – there are lots of men out there living with arthritis – including young ones!

As a young man living with arthritis, I am living proof that we are out there. I must admit that prior to joining Arthur’s Place, I had met very few young men living with arthritis and similar musculoskeletal diseases. And still, it seems that we are underrepresented. For example, in many of the research activities that I am involved with, we struggle to find and engage young men with arthritis, hence why I am often described as a rare breed! I know that they are out there, somewhere, and I think half of the problem relates back to society’s view of masculinity.

Admitting and accepting

Who wants to admit that they have an old person’s disease? This is something that I used to think to myself when I was younger – when I was under the impression that arthritis mostly affected older people. Another problem is a British problem. One of the most commonly asked questions in our country is “How are you?”

The reply “I’m fine’ can be predicted before the other person has even spoken. I know I am particularly guilty for doing this and for a lot of people living with arthritis, they really aren’t fine. On many occasions, my truthful response would be, “I’m feeling pretty rough. I slept badly last night. I’m in agony. My brain feels like a washing machine. I feel sick. And so on.” Yet I will never say this, or indeed, show signs that I am struggling. I’ll put on a brave face, and try to get on with things to the best of my ability.

We’re only human

We’re all a little guilty for trying to big and strong, but we should never feel guilty for feeling frustrated and emotional – that applies to all of us living with arthritis, and everyone in general. There are other people out there, like you and I, who deal with some pretty challenging things. As a young man, I understand the pressures other men can feel, when they’re unable to align to societal stereotypes. I whole heartedly admit that there are times, when behind my smile, there’s a sea of upset – and when I find a quiet corner, or a shoulder to cry on, I’ll do just that. I certainly am not ashamed of doing so. It makes me human – no more or less of a man. We should never make presumptions about a person’s gender. More importantly, gender should never impede a person’s progress in life, or restrict them from being themselves. To be a man, to be a woman or to gender neutral, what we should aspire to be, above all, is human. A human who is kind, respectful
and empathetic to everyone they meet, regardless of gender, age, sexual orientation, race or religion. What a wonderful world that would be.

Meet Simon and other friendly folk on Arthur’s Place Social, our Facebook Group

(Any opinions expressed in Simon’s blog are not necessarily shared by Arthur’s Place. Nothing that you read in Simon’s blog constitutes medical advice.)

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