Even superheroes need a helping hand

How the superhero complex hurts men (File Photo.)


This year has seen the release of many superhero movies – Thor: Love and Thunder, The Batman, Dr Strange and now, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Most superhero movies have a common theme – the superhero defeats the villain and saves the day. But who looks after them when their health is at risk? As we recognise Men’s Health Awareness Month in November, Sanlam’s Dr Calvin Yagan believes it is an ideal opportunity to understand better the “superhero complex” and how it affects our daily lives.

The superhero complex is a recognised psychological state where a person believes they cannot fail and that it is their duty to ‘fix’ everyone else’s problems. Whether you can relate to this trait in yourself or in a loved one, it is important to realise that without prioritising your own care, you cannot continue taking care of others indefinitely. Even the most steadfast of superheroes need a helping hand now and then.

What’s up, doc?

While not unique to men, the superhero complex plays a big role in many men’s reluctance when getting regular medical check-ups.

Dr Yagan said the superhero complex is a clinical syndrome defined by the desire or pressure to be perfect. “This complex can be so extreme that it feels like failure is not an option. The pressure to succeed is primarily self-imposed, often resulting in feelings of anxiety and stress, which can manifest mentally and physically,” he said.

The longstanding stereotype is that men tend to avoid going to the doctor. A survey conducted by the Cleveland Clinic found that 65% of men admitted to avoiding going to the doctor for as long as possible. It also found that only three in five men get annual physical examinations and that nearly half said their health is simply something they don’t discuss.

These findings are echoed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which reports that women are 33% more likely to visit their doctor and are 100% more likely to maintain screening and preventive care.

Why superheroes need saving too

Early disease detection through regular medical check-ups can save lives.

According to Sanlam Individual Life’s 2021 claims statistics, 25% of all severe illness cancer claims paid for by men were for prostate cancer.  “Prostate cancer is the most common male cancer both locally and globally, with a lifetime risk for South African men of 1 in 15, according to the 2019 National Cancer Registry. Research indicates that the risk for aggressive prostate cancer is higher in black men. It also tends to run in families, so it is important to know your family cancer history, especially where there is prostate or breast cancer in a first-degree family relative,” said Dr Yagan. The Prostate Cancer Foundation of South Africa states that, in line with global statistics,  the lifetime risk in black men could be as high as  1 in 4.

Simple screening tests are available to detect early prostate cancer. This includes the Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) blood test and the traditional digital rectal examination. The good news is that almost all men who have local or regional prostate cancer, which is found early, will survive more than five years after diagnosis.

Let’s talk about the heart

In 2021, Sanlam’s severe illness claims by men included heart attacks (14%), coronary artery bypass grafts (10%), and strokes (8%).

Cardiovascular disease accounts for 1 in 6 deaths in South Africa. While the statistics are alarming, the risk factors for cardiovascular disease are easily identifiable and treatable. Early detection of risk factors, including hypertension, obesity, sedentary lifestyle, tobacco use, diabetes, and high cholesterol, can significantly lower the risk of heart disease and strokes. Regular medical check-ups and health screening initiatives lead to these risk factors being identified and treated early.

Many superheroes, the fictional kind we see on screen and the ones in our lives, are susceptible to mental and emotional health issues. Many men are reluctant to seek help for depression and anxiety. “Social stigma contributes to self-stigma. As a society, we need to encourage transparency around medical issues. Showing empathy and creating safe spaces enables men to express vulnerability without feeling judged or ostracised,” said Nozibusiso Nyawose, Clinical Psychologist and CEO at Psych Consultancy.

Dr Yagan said that education and communication are needed to desensitise topics such as anxiety and depression. “Gen Z could be the mould-breakers who challenge and reimagine the stereotypical male. These young adults have the social and political support to be agile and inclusive in their thinking and actions,” he says.

Be kind to yourself

“Teach your children to be aware of changes to their physical bodies and any emotional challenges. When visiting the doctor or dentist, encourage them to ask questions as this prompts them to take charge of their physical and mental health,” said Nyawose. She adds that children are very perceptive, “when you seek medical help, your behaviour inadvertently gives them permission to do the same.”

The superhero inside us wants to live forever, or at least for as long as possible. “Living with confidence includes looking after yourself both mentally and physically. This means going to your healthcare practitioner for those all-important check-ups and screenings, especially as you get older, concludes Dr Yagan. – Health-e News


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