It's been described as a 'silent epidemic': the number of lonely men in the UK and US is on the rise, and so are male suicides. Calvin Holbrook asks if the two could be linked and examines the causes – and possible solutions – of increasing loneliness in male populations.

 

I can still remember grinning ear-to-ear after receiving the keys to my first apartment that was going to be all mine. After years of dodgy flatshares, I’d finally achieved the holy grail of London living: my own home (albeit rented, of course). No more arguments about washing up or cleaning. No more walking into the kitchen in the morning and finding randoms munching on my Cornflakes. The chance to now walk around starkers. Bliss.


However, after some months, my initial feelings of happiness started to fade. Feeling increasingly isolated from friends that lived far away, I was spending more time indoors alone. When winter came around, things only got worse and my loneliness deepened into a depression. What was meant to be an amazing new experience quickly soured. At the time, I was in my late 20s. Now, we all know the stereotype of lonely old spinsters –women living alone that go days without talking to anyone except their 27 cats – but I was a young (ish) male. Wasn’t it only old women – and not men – that got lonely?


Well, as recent research shows, the answer to this questions is a resounding 'no'. Increasingly, it's men – of all different age groups – that are feeling the pains of loneliness and solitude. This increase appears at the same time as a sharp rise in male suicides, so could the two be linked? 

 

Loneliness in men: the recent statistics 

According to a recent YouGov poll in the UK, almost one in five men (18 per cent) owned up to not having a single close friend. Furthermore, one in three (32 per cent) stated that they didn’t have a best friend. For women, these figures were lower at 12 and 24 per cent respectively, suggesting that, on average, men in the UK are leading more solitary lives compared to women.

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On the edge: loneliness – and suicide – among men is on the increase shutterstock/FotoDuets



However, the survey also suggests that while men appear to be lonelier than women, in reality they’re less likely to own up to feeling lonely. Because although the poll showed that 44 per cent of UK men admitted to being lonely ‘sometimes, often or all of the time’, the figure for women was actually higher (50 per cent). 


This idea that men don’t want to admit to any feelings of male loneliness was backed up by a 2017 by the Jo Cox commission on loneliness. It surveyed 1,200 men and 10 per cent said they would not admit to feeling lonely, preferring to keep it hidden. So, why are there so many lonely men in the UK and other parts of the developed world. What are the driving forces behind the phenomenon of male loneliness? 

 

1. Not discussing feelings

These studies suggest that many men prefer not to open up about their loneliness, so it’s not surprising that loneliness among British men has been described by some as the “silent epidemic”. Indeed, a lot of us men the world over would rather talk about anything else other than what’s going on inside us in terms of feelings and emotions! And that’s partly because doing so means opening up and showing real vulnerability.


RELATED: 11 things to do if you're feeling lonely


Many men growing up are taught not to express our vulnerability as we're shown by society and the media that it’s something weak. We’ve been told to keep a stiff upper lip, to ‘keep calm and carry on’; men should not express their feelings. But, actually, showing vulnerability to someone else is one key factor in which real, close friendships can be forged, and loneliness beaten. 


A 2012 study entitled 'Men and Suicide: Why it's a social issue’ from the UK charity Samaritans found that even today men still compare themselves against a ‘gold standard’ that values control, power, and invincibility: all  these things go against men being vulnerable and speaking out about your emotions and mental health issues. This reason for male loneliness is closely linked to a second factor. 

 

2. Society, stigma and toxic masculinity

As well as being taught to be tough, from early childhood many of us men are also conditioned to be assertive and ‘manly'. Not only by our fathers (and sometimes mothers), but by society at large and advertising. Indeed, entire marketing and advertising campaigns are created around what it means to be a man and shoved in our faces.


The Samaritans study also found that during childhood men in the UK are taught that being ‘manly’ doesn’t emphasize social and emotional skills. Furthermore, they suggested that it's clearly linked to men taking their own lives. The study states: “Masculinity – the way men are brought up to behave and the roles, attributes and behaviours that society expects of them – contributes to suicide in men.”

 

“Many men prefer not to open up about their loneliness, so it's not surprising that loneliness among British men has been described as a 'silent epidemic'.”


Meanwhile, in the US, similar things are afoot. Psychology professor and author Niobe Way has researched teenage boys and their closest friendships. Her work shows that boys in early adolescence express a deeply fulfilling emotional connection for each other. However, by the time they're adults, that sense of connection has disappeared.


Why? Way suggests that this ‘natural’ distancing is, in fact, artificial – a result of toxic judgments leveled against boys and young teenage men by their society and environment. Speaking to Mark Greene for Upworthy, Way explained: “Boys know by late adolescence that their close male friendships, and even their emotional acuity, put them at risk of being labeled girly, immature, or gay. Thus, rather than focusing on who they are, they become obsessed with who they are not  —  they are not girls, little boys nor, in the case of heterosexual boys, are they gay.”

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The result? “These boys mature into men who are autonomous, emotionally stoic, and isolated,” says Way. Three strong factors for male loneliness. And even though many of these men are now in relationships with families, it can be argued that they're experiencing a real sense of loss from losing their previous male friendships. 

 

3. Fewer bonding opportunities

Research suggests that men bond more during shared, intense experiences, for example, group sporting activities or serving in the military. Women, on the other hand, find making friendships easier and see more options, forging pals with other parents they meet through children’s schools, clubs or sports teams. According to the YouGov poll, 71 per cent of women found friends this way but only 49 per cent of men did. 


RELATED: How to make new friends as an adult


Speaking to The Times, Robin Hewings, the director of research at the Campaign to End Loneliness, backed up this difference between male and female loneliness figures in the 2019 YouGov survey: “Women are more likely to have wider social networks than men across their lifetime and spend more time cultivating their existing friendships and meeting new people. For a lot of men, friendships formed in the workplace are key, which can lead to loneliness and isolation in retirement.”

 

4. Retirement and living alone

Indeed, retirement plays an important part. If those male work relationships are not continued after retirement, it can lead to isolation and loneliness. Figures from the Jo Cox Commission state that over a quarter of men aged 65-69 in the UK said that retiring had made them feel lonely.


And as my own personal of living alone shows, it's not always what it's cracked up to be. In reality, for some men living alone, it can be isolating, with them having less regular contact with family and friends. The number of middle-aged people living alone in the UK has jumped by about a half over the past two decades, figures show. For men, the ages of 45 to 64 were the most common with approximately 1.3 million men residing solo. 

 

5. Marriage

You’d expect married men to be less lonely and unsupported, but a 2015 YouGov survey for Movember actually showed that UK married men have some of the lowest levels of support outside of their homes. In fact, they were found to be over 30 per cent more likely than their single counterparts to claim they have no one to turn to.

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Solo shame: men typically have fewer bonding opportunities than women shutterstock/Prostock-studio


Importantly, married men are also more than twice as likely as men who cohabit with a partner yet remain unmarried to say the same. This suggests that its marriage itself, rather than being in a long-term relationship, that cuts existing male friendship ties. 


Sarah Coghlan, country director for Movember UK, told The Telegraph: “Men are expected to spend time with their wives, and that’s normal and natural and very healthy, but at the cost perhaps of friendships that they need to invest in.”

 

Male loneliness and suicide

Aside from these major causes of male loneliness, some other factors include moving away from friends and family, going through a breakup, unemployment, and the death of a family member. Just like me, you've probably experience loneliness to some degree. But while being lonely is something we all go through now and again, if chronic loneliness develops, it can be dangerous – or even fatal: a 2015 study showed that lacking social connections is as bad for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes each day (Holt-Lunstad).


According to the Jo Cox commission study, around 35 per cent of men said being lonely made them feel depressed. And if men are battling depression or anxiety as well on top of loneliness, then it’s pretty hard to ‘keep calm and carry on’: eventually something has to break, and that's what we're seeing with a rise in mental health issues in men. 


RELATED: 8 powerful suicide prevention quotes


In 2018 the UK suicide rate rose to its highest level since 2002 – over 6,500 people took their own life (11.2 per 100,000 people) – a figure up 12 per cent on the previous year. And of those registered suicides, a staggering 75 per cent were men. Likewise, in the US, suicide as a whole is the highest it has been in decades and as of 2017, the male suicide rate was over three times that of the female rate. So, it’s clear that men are disproportionately taking their own lives, with loneliness playing a big part. 

 

Combating male loneliness 

To fight off male loneliness, it’s vital that all men – regardless of sexuality and relationship status – take their friendships seriously and continually invest in them. Men are traditionally more likely to develop friendships with someone they have met at a bar or pub or through sports clubs, but there are plenty of other ways to meet other men and women and combat male loneliness.


Some ideas for ways lonely men to make new friends include:
 

  • Joining a gym and trying a new fitness course, signing up to do a marathon, or joining a walking or hiking group (the latter is great as you have to talk while walking, plus you get the benefits of being in nature). 
     
  • Get a dog and strike up conversations with other owners while out. 
     
  • Get to know neighbours by joining a local community group.
     
  • Use social media to re-connect with old friends, then try to meet in a real-world setting. 
     
  • Doing voluntary work. As well as meeting new people to combat loneliness, there are plenty of other benefits to volunteering, such as boosting self-esteem.

 

Indeed, within the UK, there have been some great initiatives set up to reduce the number of lonely men and to make their worlds brighter. These case studies can be examined to see what works best.


In Leeds, the Time to Shine program aims to reduce the loneliness of the city’s older population. It was found that ensuring men feel they have something practical to offer is important in them getting involved – this worked well when mean were encouraged to volunteer in a charity shop.

 

“To fight off male loneliness, it's vital that all men take their friendships seriously and continually invest in them.”


Other activities that appeal to older men include those which provide the chance to teach skills to others, such as DIY or gardening or DIY. These have helped lonely men to generate a sense of purpose and help build their self-esteem.


Working together: the Men in Sheds scheme helps lonely men in the UK YouTube/Spool


Elsewhere, the UK Men’s Sheds Association helps men to reduce loneliness by enabling them to connect and enjoy skills and activities together. And, yep, as the name suggests, it’s done in that traditional older male habitat – the garden shed. Over 500 sheds are in operation throughout the UK with over 100 more in development. And while many of the men involved are of retirement, the project attracts younger lonely me also. 

 

A cut above

Another success aimed at the younger generation of depressed and lonely men in the UK is the Lion’s Barber Collective. Founded in 2015 by barber Tom Chapman, the aim is to turn barber’s shops into safe spaces of discussion for men. Chapman gives profession training courses in person and via video helping barbers to feel comfortable about discussing mental health with their clients.


The intimacy of getting a haircut is used as a  starting point for conversations around depression, anxiety, etc. What’s more, as it’s a regular and frequent event, the Collective hopes that clients can be a rapport and friendship with their barbers. As Chapman explained to Quartz magazine: “Being in the chair, having that conversation,  one-to-one contact, human contact, that doesn’t happen very often.”

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Group gains: activities such as hiking can fight off male loneliness shutterstock/illpaxphotomatic

 

“We [barbers] listen on average 2,000 hours a year. If we can help train barbers to recognize the signs, ask the right questions, listen with empathy and without judgement and help them help their clients find the resources that are available, we can help save lives,” Chapman said. His initiative, which started in Devon, has won plaudits and has now spread internationally to New York City and Australia. 

 

Readdressing toxic masculinity

Initiatives like these are making great strides to make positive changes in male loneliness and mental health. And it seems some companies and advertisers are starting to take note that they also play an important role in influencing men’s mental health and loneliness.


Continuing the men’s grooming theme, shaving company Gillette recently changed their 30-year-old tagline from ‘the best a man can get’ to ‘the best men can be’ to fight back against toxic masculinity. The company said the new tagline and advertisement was part of a broader initiative for Gilette to promote “positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy versions of what it means to be a man.


Of course, it will take a lot more than this to reverse the worrying trend of male loneliness and suicide. But with a growing awareness and discussion of male mental health and successful initiatives like Men's Sheds Association and Lion's Barber Collective expanding throughout the UK and beyond, hopefully soon there won't be so many lonely men struggling to cope with their isolation.


Indeed, as stigma around male loneliness continues to be broken down, men should be able to become more vulnerable and feel comfortable opening up about the issues affecting them. 
 

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Are you struggling with mental health issues or loneliness? In the UK and Ireland, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. For other international helplines, visit www.befrienders.org.
Main image: shutterstock/Robsonphoto

 

Written by Calvin Holbrook

calvin.holbrook.jpegCalvin edits the happiness.com magazine, as well being an artist and travel lover. He also loves hiking, nature, swimming, yoga, sweaty dancing, and all things vintage!

 

 

 


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