Daring to discuss incontinence

If shame around natural bodily functions such as menstruation is a limiting factor, the stigma surrounding incontinence is even stronger. As we saw in the first chapter, incontinence is a complex health and social issue that can cause devastating social and economic exclusion as well as psychological stress. Despite impacting the daily lives of an estimated 400 million men, women and children around the world, it is rarely talked about openly, limiting knowledge about the help and products available.

Woman looking for sanitary products in a shop

Incontinence is most common among women, and one in three women over the age of 50 is affected at some point in their life. People living with incontinence are prone to embarrassment over potential leakage or smell and can feel ostracized or isolated as a result. They may experience anxiety about finding a place to relieve themselves with dignity. Many people are unaware that help is available. Instead people use toilet paper, socks, double underwear and other things that are not effective. Worse still, people with leakage issues do not talk about their problems with anyone – not even their doctor. “It’s a pity they hesitate to seek help,” says Ralph Peeker, professor and consultant at Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Gothenburg. “Incontinence can be treated in very many cases. It’s also important to find out what it’s due to.” This is particularly important since incontinence can be a sign of a more serious health issue such as prostate cancer or ovarian cancer that requires the attention of healthcare professionals. When it comes to contact for diagnosis, a 2013 study of ours into men’s health in Germany, India, Sweden and the UK found that one in four of respondents had not yet seen someone about their bladder problems but intended to, and one in three in the UK and Sweden had not seen anyone at all.

Many people affected by bladder problems and leakage issues endure strong social stigma. Some become depressed while others become dehydrated because they are afraid to drink too much liquid. Worst of all is the constant fear of discovery.