It is breathtaking how quickly and insidiously loneliness can set in and clamp itself to a person’s life.
In Britain, we have something of a loneliness epidemic – we are officially the loneliest country in the EU – which means we have non-existent relationships with our neighbours, we are less likely to ask for help and we are not good at making new friends.
The most startling thing is that we are no longer talking just about the elderly (although they are still a vulnerable group).
Britain is lonely, but one group in particular is deeply affected by this, and that is men in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
HuffPost UK Lifestyle spoke to The Samaritans, after we noticed and were interested in the possible link between loneliness in men and the much higher suicide rate, in comparison to women.
Lorna Fraser, spokesperson at the charity said: “”We commissioned some social scientists to look specifically at men because men are a vulnerable group and are three times more likely to take their own life.
“We know that men struggle to talk about things more than women do and one of the key things is that women tend to make use of friendships in a completely different way to men. Women will get together with girlfriends whether that’s an individual or a group. Whether it’s a problem at work, with their children or their partner – they will use that friendship to talk about it and work through it. We know men don’t tend to do that. It’s a cliche but men will meet with their peers and talk about sport but not things that are issues for them.”
But how do men of those age groups – surely the ages when they are able to make friends at work – find themselves so isolated?
Ant Meades, 35, who has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and depression and writes a blog about his experiences, says that his underlying mental health issues have prompted him to push his friends away.
“It’s got to the point where I have two friends – my ex-wife and another I haven’t seen for three years. You push them away because you become sick of letting people down. I’d agree to go out and then cancel, and people stop asking you because you’ve done it so many times.
“As you get older if you do lose some of your friends, they become impossible to replace. Men don’t really talk to each other about new stuff and don’t engage with new people as well as women do and I think it’s very difficult.”
If you don’t love going down the pub or you’re not especially into football, the options are slim. For women there is the Women’s Institute, for older men there is Men’s Sheds, but it’s a struggle to think of a national movement or group that allows men in their 30s and 40s to come together.
“The accepted social norms,” says Ant, “is to meet people at work and go for a drink afterwards. I find it difficult to leave the house at the best of times.”
For a lot of men, it’s often unexpected major life events that can propel them down the path of loneliness – divorce being a big factor.
Neil Shah, founder of The Stress Management Society says: “When I was going through a divorce, I felt really lonely. When you are used to always having this one person around all the time and they are suddenly no longer there, it can really isolate you. I wasn’t used to spending so much time by myself and only stopped feeling lonely when I became comfortable with my own company.”
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Sheri Jacobson, clinical director at Harley Therapy says: “The symptoms could include feeling disconnected from the world around you, constantly thinking about a past time when life seemed so much better and you had more friends, or even idealising previous relationships which in fact weren’t so perfect but are now being seen through a lens of loneliness.
“While for some loneliness might be temporary and explainable, not all of us handle life change easily. So an explainable bout of loneliness, from, say, being thrown into a new job that requires moving cities, can have a snowball effect that can trigger a deeper, unexplainable loneliness.
“This might be because the change sees us realising how much we do or don’t know ourselves, exacerbating our loneliness, as if we don’t feel certain of who we are it makes it harder for others to connect with us. Other, older issues can also be triggered, such as feelings of shame, abandonment and failure.”
Fraser refers to the ‘masculine gold standard’ – a code that men live up to and are left unable to cope if they can’t. This standard she says, “prizes power, control and invicibility. Things like having a job and providing for family is central to this. When men believe they aren’t meeting that standard they feel a sense of shame and defeat.”
“You are bombarded in the media with perfect man images, and if you don’t have a big TV or a flash car you’re somehow failing your gender,” says Meades. “It becomes difficult if you have an illness – my closest friends judged me and that was the toughest bit.”
The finger of blame can also be pointed at technology. With an increasing number of us leading lives online and in some cases, only interacting with certain friends online, it can make talking to a real live human about our issues even more challenging.
“People are less likely to belong to communities, such as churches, social clubs, or hobby groups,” says Jacobson. “Our communities are more and more online, which can lead to less real contact.
“We also have the capacity to lead bigger, more exciting lives then past generations – working for a global country that has us travelling often, running our own business on line and working from home, having non-traditional relationships. These new ways of living may keep us busy, but they also entail new sorts of loneliness.”
A solution is more complex than we might think. Fraser rightly points out that we cannot expect men to act or conduct friendships in the same way women do.
Jacobson also adds that you shouldn’t immediately force yourself to interact with other people. “One of the best ways to deal with loneliness isn’t necessarily to rush out and meet random new friends or a new romantic partner, both of which may end up making you feel once again you don’t connect with others, but to take time to get to know yourself and what you truly want from others and life.
“When we start to create a life we actually want, we more naturally attract people we have an affinity with.”
Lastly, loneliness isn’t something to be feared. Shah says that spending time alone can actually be a good thing, and Jacobson agrees.
“In some ways loneliness is helpful. It can be a trigger to help us look at ourselves and identify what is missing for us, if our relationships are perhaps not fulfilling us in the way we need them too, or if we need to get more in tune with ourselves.”
If you need to talk to someone about the issues discussed in this piece, visit The Samaritans or call 08457 90 90 90. Movember have a renewed focus on men’s mental health this year, for more information, visit the website.
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