A variety of personal, societal and policy factors lie behind why men, on average, live four years less than women in Ireland, but there are things men can do to improve the odds of a longer life for themselves.
Men’s Health Week (June 12th-18th) will be highlighting measures that could reduce preventable health problems in males of all ages. A 46-page booklet, Action Man: 10 Top Tips for Men’s Health, is one of the new resources produced by the Health Service Executive in conjunction with Men’s Health Forum in Ireland (mhfi.org).
Eoin Kernan is a watersports coach and lives in Howth, Co Dublin. An advocate for men’s mental health since developing a mental illness in 2019, the 40 year old featured in film-maker Alan Bradley’s 2021 documentary Unspoken about men living with an eating disorder. For him now although this disorder “is quietened, it will never be gone”.
Before his mental illness, he was “living the standard model of life”: trying to achieve a career, to own a house, to have a happy relationship, all with kids, “kind of oblivious to the pressures those bring”.
By the end of 2018, he believed he was not succeeding the way he should, not matching up to individuals around him. “I felt shit basically. I decided I would start changing myself through the food I was eating and went on a ‘clean eating’ journey. It became very dark very quickly.”
He was also exercising hard to get his body in better shape.
This compulsive behaviour over food purity, known as orthorexia, soon developed into anorexia. As his body mass index (BMI) fell, he became hooked on what he thought was achievement in reducing it further.
“It was the only number in the world that was telling me, ‘Eoin you are a good person, you are doing something good’.”
Lying to his concerned partner, family and friends about how he was just on a health kick, he was driven by an “irrational” determination to look as good as any other man on the beach. As the obsessional behaviour continued, “my body started to shut down: I lost two-thirds of my body mass and I became a skeleton of my own self. I couldn’t function.”
Three months’ residential treatment helped Eoin change his life. In hindsight he can see how he felt out of control in the world. “For me the eating disorder became a tool I used to give me confidence; it was false confidence.”
What habits do you prioritise for physical health?
The main thing is acceptance around what is physically well and that I am not going to be super human. I don’t need to be one of these body builders. As long as my body is allowing me to get out of bed in the morning, go for a walk and do my sports on the water, that’s enough. I don’t need to be anything more.
My work as a watersports coach, teaching stand-up paddle boarding (discoversup.ie), keeps me active every day. I am doing a huge amount of [physical] work but in a distracted fashion, so I don’t have to think about it. I also do kite-surfing for my own personal enjoyment.
What helps keep you mentally well?
I continue with weekly talk therapy that I started four years ago. Talking solves a lot of our problems and we don’t do enough of it.
Also I have discovered what gives me value in life. During in-patient treatment for three months, I was able to discover what makes me who I am and what I want to do. That, for me, was having shared experiences with people and being collaborative, and that’s what I do now on a daily basis.
I also found out that to do the things that give me joy in life, I don’t have to “earn” them. The phrase “earn a living” is ridiculous, we are alive. I removed the word “should” from my life. I know if I am having a bad day, that’s okay.
The world of mental health has become commodifiable and there is a very big difference between mental health and mental illness. For me living with a mental illness doesn’t mean I can’t have good mental health day to day. This idea of yoga and full-moon bathing, I am sure they are great but they are not going to solve my mental illness.
I am on medication because a very wise person said to me early on that the medication gives the brain space to do the rest of the thinking. It is not going to be the ultimate solution but if you don’t have the space to engage in the talking, in the art therapy, or whatever it might me, it will be very difficult.
Is there any unhealthy habit in your past that you particularly regret?
The word regret is very loaded, I would avoid using that. Looking back I can see where the problems arose and it would have been lovely to have a bit more knowledge at that time. As a middle-aged man living in a regular world, I didn’t know what eating disorders were. When I went on my health kick, I did not know the potential pitfalls.
I now have a bank of knowledge about this topic and there’s no point in it all living up in my head. Yes it does me good but it can also do other people good. Hence why we did Unspoken and why I do things like this.
What societal changes would you most like to see to support men’s health in Ireland?
The message around expectations of who men should be needs to change. There is still the idea that the man is the provider and that can be distracting because you put everything else to the back in order to deliver that. I think it is changing but it is changing slowly.
There are limits to the amount of grace we can give people if living a very unhealthy life. We have to keep ourselves well and there are habits we need to engage in. It’s that fine line between allowing people to be who they are and at the same time encouraging people to be physically and mentally well.