With the solstice behind us and the last few days of June ahead, summer is here. And the reminders are constant: warmer weather, relaxed dress codes and recurring vacation ads on television. Along with the official start of summer, the month marks an important awareness period for men’s health. Events and activities centered to encourage and engage men all over the world to be more proactively engaged in their own health and well-being, Men’s Health Month has served as an annual reminder to everyone that men aren’t invincible. Men, in fact, succumb to disease and premature death at greater rates and earlier ages than their female counterparts.
Peter Baker, director of the Global Action on Men’s Health, wasn’t aware enough to engage in such reminders. In my interview with him below, Peter shares his personal wake-up call to health and how that catalyzed his passion into the international men’s health movement.
Me: How did you end up doing the work that you’re currently doing? Describe your journey to your current role as the Director of Global Action on Men’s Health. Describe why you’re passionate about making men healthy and why others should care about the health disparities between genders.
Peter Baker: I’ve been active in men’s health for about 20 years and involved in broader men’s issues for over 30. I came to this field through my interest in feminism and an exploration of my own masculinity through men’s groups and writing, including for a small but influential anti-sexist UK men’s magazine called Achilles Heel. I was for a time also actively involved as a volunteer in projects which aimed to end men’s violence against women.
I became a freelance journalist and writer in 1990 and contributed articles about men’s issues to a wide range of well-known UK newspapers and magazines including Cosmopolitan, GQ, The Guardian and The Independent. My involvement in men’s health specifically became much more significant when I was invited to become the health editor for a men’s magazine, Maxim, in 1995. In 1996, my book (co-written with Mick Cooper) The MANual: The complete man’s guide to life was published. This was a self-help guide for men interested in reflecting on and changing their experience of work, sex, relationships and parenting as well as health. My second book, Real Health for Men (published in 1992), focused specifically on health and well-being and the practical steps men can take to add years to their life as well as life to their years.
My interest in men’s health also stemmed from personal experience of some chronic health problems when I was in my 30s. I developed often debilitating back pain and, probably as a result of drugs taken for that, a duodenal ulcer. I’d never taken much care of my health before and, in my late teens and 20s, drank too much alcohol, eaten poorly, done little exercise and steadily put on weight. Alongside the drugs and the physiotherapy for my ulcer and back, I decided to improve my diet, cut out alcohol and start exercising. When my marriage broke down in the early 1990s, I also started psychotherapy which helped me to think about my mental health and wellbeing in a new way.
My men’s health journalism brought me into contact with men’s health advocates and specifically the Men’s Health Forum, an organization that works to improve men’s health in England and Wales. When the coordinator left in 1999, I was invited to take over on a part –time, temporary basis. In 2000, I became the Forum’s first full-time Chief Executive and I stayed for another 12 years. During that time, I helped to develop the Forum into a national charity, launched Men’s Health Week in the UK in 2002, and push men’s health issues onto the agendas of national government and the health services.
I left the Men’s Health Forum in 2012 in large part so I could focus more on the men’s health issues that most interested me without the burden of organizational management, a major aspect of my job that I’d always seen as a necessary evil. As a self-employed consultant in men’s health, I’m now able to focus much more on the issues that really interest me. I’ve mainly been working with the European Men’s Health Forum on improving men’s use of primary care services, developing a UK campaign (HPV Action) that makes the case for boys to be included alongside girls in the national HPV vaccination programme, and establishing Global Action on Men’s Health (GAMH).
GAMH came about because I’d become very aware that in most countries men’s health was not being addressed, or even talked about, and agencies with a global role, such as the World Health Organisation seemed to believe that gender was about women alone. My view is that there need not be a conflict between men’s health and women’s health; they are not binary opposites or a zero sum game. In fact, they are closely intertwined: improving men’s health would be good for women’s health and vice versa.
What makes me passionate about improving men’s health is a firm belief that, when it comes to health, men are not being treated sympathetically or fairly. Too many men are dying too young or living too many years with debilitating health problems, both physical and mental. It could be so much better.
Tackling men’s health problems is not only ethically the right thing to do – because enjoying optimal health is a basic human right – it also makes good economic sense too. We know from studies in the United States and Canada that men’s health problems are very expensive for health services and for society as a whole.
Me: What inspires you on a daily basis, especially when things get hard?