Men’s inability to talk about feelings has become somewhat of a joke – an often flippant byword for outdated ideas about the differences between men and women.
But beyond the jokey exterior, an inability to talk to friends – and by extension, loneliness – is such a problem for many men that it’s been described by one report as a “silent epidemic”.
The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness released figures earlier this month suggesting that millions of British men are feeling lonely – 11% saying they feel lonely “every day” and 35% at least once a week.
But why are so many men lonely?
Simon, 31, told me that his loneliness “happened without [him] noticing at first”. But as friends “got jobs elsewhere, moved away, got married, had children”, things changed for him.
“You’re happy for them, obviously – they’re your friends and you care about them and you want them to be happy,” he said. “But one day you discover no one wants to go out on Friday night or that weekend: they’re busy. Then you realise that somehow they’ve been lucky and you haven’t.
“What used to be regular trips to the pub turns into meeting up a couple of times a year, turns into occasional text messages, before fizzling out entirely”. This reflects the report’s findings, which suggested that moving away from friends or family or experiencing break-ups can either catalyse or worsen loneliness.
And there’s another common thread through many stories about loneliness – mental illness. Many men experiencing anxiety and depression feel unable to talk about it with friends, colleagues or medical professionals, isolating themselves further. And the Jo Cox Commission found that around 35% of men said that being lonely “made them feel depressed”.
“Loneliness and mental health go hand in hand for me,” Simon told me.
“A lot of my mental health issues manifest in an inability to build my own self confidence,” Duncan, a London-based editor, agrees. “So even though I’d say I have an active social life, it means that I end up feeling lonely even when, by most standards, I’m rarely alone. Sometimes it can hit quite intensely when I feel like I’m not fitting in with a group of people – especially when I move from job to job.”
And Adam, a 25-year-old graphic designer, described his feelings of loneliness and his mental health problems as “feeding off each other”.
“When you’re lonely, you’re generally feeling pretty downtrodden anyway, so it’s easy to fall down that rabbit hole of being very critical of every aspect of your life. And when you’re feeling depressed it’s like you’re on your own and no one could possibly understand what you’re going through – even though that’s probably not the case at all.”
Dr Sean Cross, consultant psychiatrist at London’s Nightingale Hospital, told me that loneliness can actually “make things like depression and anxiety more likely”.
”Humans are social animals and for most of us to remain healthy we need strong and meaningful relationships with others,” he said. “There are lots of reasons why being lonely, especially in a big bustling city, remains a problem for men. If we are time poor and juggling multiple demands it can be hard to genuinely share thoughts and feelings which sustain our important real time networks of friends and family.”
But Cross suggests that some of the things that can cause loneliness can also be used to combat it.
“As we shift more of our social life online, we could check how much are we using these tools to communicate better with people we know and how much we are relying on them for a social life with people we barely know or don’t know at all. Rebalancing this could be a very helpful thing to do,” he said.
He also warns that anyone feeling their loneliness has gone beyond remedy should head to their GP, and that contacting a local IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) service could be a “good first step to helping”.
Cross also recommends that men talk to one another more – even though this can admittedly be difficult for many.
A lot of men recognise this already, too.
“We have to detach ourselves from the idea that toxic masculinity is something feminism invented to quote unquote ‘bash men’ – it’s very obviously real and as far as I’m concerned it’s the number one exacerbating factor for male mental health,” said Duncan.
“To be honest? Just do away with out of date standards of ‘proper’ male behaviour, talk to each other about your shit and be prepared to properly listen.”