I was reading an article yesterday written by Professor Sarah Niblock, CEO of the United Kingdom (UK) Council for Psychotherapy. According to Niblock, a survey was conducted during the month of ‘Movember’ in 2019, in which men were asked whether they had people outside their homes they could confide in about their worries. Half said they had two or fewer friends and one in eight had none. In the context of the UK, this meant that 2.5 million men had no close friends. Even worse is that men’s friendlessness trebles between their 20s and late middle age, said Niblock.
This got me wondering about the stats in Australia, not to mention how they have been impacted by Covid-19 landing on our shores a few months ago. Given isolation has been shown to have both physical and mental health implications, this is vital information to be aware of. In fact, research shows that loneliness is as detrimental to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and there is a correlation between loneliness and coronary heart disease, strokes and depression.
In 2014, Beyond Blue published that almost 25% of Australian men aged 30-65 (~1 million) were at risk of isolation. Around 25% had no one outside of their immediate family to rely on; 61% had lost contact with more friends than they would have liked to and 50% of men rarely talked about deeply personal issues even if they did have friends. Relationships Australia (2018), showed that men tend to report higher levels of loneliness than women and the stats are on the incline.
According to a June 2020 article published by Human Resources Director, ‘on average, one in eight men experiences depression and one in five faces anxieties at some stage in their life. This can lead to devastating results, with men accounting for six out of eight suicides on average each day in Australia.
Moreover, the economic impact of COVID-19 has heightened many men’s anxiety around securing income and the weight of responsibility for protecting family members with 62.1% of men expressing anxiety during the pandemic. Some men may be unable to work from home, and therefore may feel at risk of contracting the virus at work, while others may be feeling isolated and miss the social connection offices provide’.
But why do so many men find it difficult to put up their hand if they are struggling or feeling lonely? A common theme I see in the work I do is that many men feel they have to be self-reliant. Statements like ‘Suck it up’ and’ Don’t cry like a girl’ frequently litter their childhood memories. Admitting they have a problem, expressing their deepest feelings or discussing a serious personal topic can be viewed as a sign of weakness for men, and so many men don’t venture there. Instead, they bottle it up and put on a brave face for as long as they can. When it comes to stress levels, bottled up emotions are a sure way to switch on their fight, flight or freeze response resulting in detrimental short and long term effects on their health, physically, mentally and emotionally.
The way we were raised can have a significant impact on how we view loneliness. For some men, it is often challenging to recognise feelings of loneliness in the first place. The differences in how boys and girls behave are not hardwired at birth, rather embedded through how we are socialised. Boys ‘don’t cry’ is a social construct, not a behavioural one. Typically, girls were allowed to express their feelings and cry if they were upset or frustrated. This was seen as acceptable by parents and teachers and part of being a girl. This meant girls learnt to talk about their feelings, express themselves, and these verbal skills were valued by adults in their lives. Boys, in contrast, were more likely to be shut down, which for many, resulted in an inability to express and talk about their emotions. Particularly if they are struggling, feeling vulnerable or lonely.
Having a partner and a family can help ward off the negative effects of loneliness, but what if a man’s personal circumstances change? After a relationship break up, a bereavement or the need to isolate due to Covid-19, some men find their friends may drift away, and they have no one to talk to. Social media can play some part in reconnecting; however, it does not replace face to face connection. Social activities such as playing a team sport are also not for everyone, and if a man is already feeling lonely and isolated, their confidence may be too low to enter these environments and connect over a shared interest. And then there is the danger of self-medicating to overcome their loneliness. In some male-dominated social environments drinking alcohol is encouraged, which in the short term may provide some solace; however, in the long run, may exacerbate the mental health effects of isolation. So, what are some of the things men can do to help avoid loneliness in the first place?
Start with small talk.
Yes, I know. I sometimes feel like I would rather donate a kidney than have to engage in small talk; however, it can play a big part in breaking the ice. Try making small talk with someone who is in the same takeaway coffee queue or when zapping your lunch in the work lunchroom if you are back in the office. Yes, it will probably feel awkward at first, but these small conversations can help you feel less alone and isolated. A short chat with a fellow co-worker may become a beer after work on a Friday.
Mix with like-minded people
Think about what you are into – music, sport, books, video games. Maybe there is a club near you where you can meet up with like-minded people. Another option is Meetup, which is free and designed to bring people together who enjoy similar things or activities. Fitness, sport, photography, dancing…pretty much anything.
Not only does exercise help us stay fit and is an excellent short-term stress management strategy, but it is also a way to meet new people. The good thing about sport and exercise is that it occurs regularly, so there is less pressure to make a good impression at a one-time meeting. Perhaps you have a friend that enjoys walking or a game of golf. Give them a call and meet up with them for a quick 9 or 18 holes.
Although research shows that face to face relationships are better, connecting online may be the first step. Whether you are chatting with someone, playing your favourite game or directly contributing to a group chat with like-minded people, connecting online is a great way to battle loneliness. It may also build your confidence to take the step into joining face to face. You have already built up a rapport online and learnt something about them as a person.
When we are feeling very lonely and feel there is no light at the end of the tunnel, we might become antisocial without even realising it. Before we know it, we are turning down opportunities to hang out. Challenge yourself to get out and be sociable at least once a week. Plan it in your schedule, so you don’t forget, and you can work your time around it. Maybe SMS that friend that you haven’t spoken to in a long time or have lost touch with. They will probably be happy to hear from you.
If asking someone to have a beer with you is just not your thing, why not head to a local spot and hang out with a good book or magazine. Find a place where you feel comfortable to relax, such as at your local café, a shopping centre or your local library. The first couple of times may feel a tad awkward, and you may think that people are eyeballing you, but they probably aren’t. A regular chill spot also creates an excellent opportunity to meet new people. Turning up on a regular basis will allow you to meet other regulars, and you might spark up a conversation.
Not all of us are into journaling; however, research shows that processing your emotions by writing them down is a great way to battle loneliness. It will also help you to become clearer on where your head is at. You can scribble your thoughts in a notebook, jot down some lyrics, or collect your thoughts in a word document on your laptop. Try the journaling app called Day One if this is something you think may be useful to you.
Care for a pet
Talk about unconditional love! Animals are a great way to make us feel connected and cared for. Pets, especially cats and dogs, can reduce stress, anxiety, depression and ease loneliness. You don’t have to own a pet, try pet minding if you don’t want the long term responsibility. Walking your neighbour’s dog occasionally could be an option, and you may even meet a fellow animal lover.
Volunteering is an excellent way to give back to your local community and do something meaningful. Countless charities need volunteers, and Govolunteer.com.au is a great place to start looking for opportunities near you.
For those of you who despite trying different strategies to connect still feel lonely, get some professional support. A doctor, a psychologist, a counsellor or a psychotherapist. If you need it, your doctor can help you complete a mental health plan that will enable you to access counselling services or visit a psychologist. It’s okay to get the support you need.
There are also several support programs specifically designed to support men’s loneliness.
- Australian Men’s Shed Association– mensshed.org. It’s all in the name – the Men’s Shed Association is all about building, whether it’s furniture or friendships. With over 985 locations around Australia, chances are there’s a shed near you.
- Men’s Line – https://www.mensline.org.au/. Men’s Line is a phone and online support service that offers ‘male-friendly’ counselling that can ensure your privacy and anonymity. It also features an active forum where men come together to give each other advice, guidance and support.
- Man Therapy – https://www.mantherapy.org.au. Man Therapy is an initiative by Beyond Blue to help men understand and respond to their depression. Described as a toolkit, it gives men strategies and guidance on how to approach and cope with depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.
Don’t forget that everyone has times when they feel lonely. Taking even just a few of the steps above can help reduce your isolation and should help you start to feel better.
Author: Dr Leanne Wall (BSc. MBBCh. Grad. Dip Counselling)