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Why are mental health issues and loneliness so common among men?

Man standing alone looking out a window
Sasha Freeman / Unsplash

Opinion / by Marco Ricci

1 in 8 men will experience depression at some point in their life, while 1 in 3 say they don't have a best friend. Tapping into his own experience, Marco Ricci argues that the focus of conversation around men's mental health needs to change, or else these statistics will never improve.

This week is both Loneliness Awareness Week and Men's Health Week. It's probably many other types of awareness week too, but these are the two that particularly stand out for me. That's because, as a man of 33 years, I've spent at least the last 15 years knowingly trying to manage social anxiety, and I've experienced the feelings of loneliness that frequently come with it.

What really interests me though is the common thread between a mental 'illness' like social anxiety and loneliness which, based on my own life, continues to be reflected across society: neither are considered to be something that a 'true man' should experience.

Of course, this is an opinion based on my perception of society's expectations, and the importance I place on them. I have no doubt that these perceptions are the crux of my own issues, and I understand that not everyone will experience social anxiety in the same way, or because of the same things. But humour me for a second.

When you think of how a man should be, what characteristics would you describe them as having? Strong and muscular? Confident and outgoing? Charismatic and funny?

Would you consider that same man to be experiencing a mental health issue, like depression or anxiety? Would you consider them to have no close friends?

I'm willing to bet that most of you reading this wouldn't have thought about either of these aspects, even though they're very relevant to men today – 1 in 8 and 1 in 5 men experience depression or anxiety, respectively, at some point in their lives, while around 1 in 3 men don't have anyone they would consider to be a best friend.

Lived experience

The reason this bothers me so much is because of my own life experiences. As I mentioned at the start, I've spent about 15 years of my life trying to perfect my own management of social anxiety. But at every step of the way, I've been faced with the reality that social anxiety flies in the face of what I am expected to be, making it even harder to open up about how it affects my reality.

To give you a flavour of exactly what it's like to experience social anxiety, imagine a voice inside your head that is constantly analysing, comparing and questioning literally everything about your social life. Do I have enough friends? Am I funny enough? Do people find me interesting? These are questions I am faced with every day, and much like a child throwing the same question at you again and again, trying to keep these thoughts at bay can be exhausting.

The trouble comes when you aren't prepared for them. Maybe you're feeling particularly stressed already, or maybe you haven't followed your usual wellbeing 'routine' that's helps your mind stay in a healthy state (or maybe you've just simply run out of energy to fight them). At this point, it becomes very easy for these thoughts to spiral into darker, more existential thoughts. Questions like will I have an embarrassingly low number of people at my wedding? Will anyone be at my funeral? Will anyone actually remember me when I'm gone?

As you can probably imagine, it's hard to then live up to the 'real man' stereotype with all of this going on. For example, it's hard to exude confidence if your own thoughts are telling you that you aren't, and it's pretty tough to crack a witty joke if all your focus is on convincing yourself that your thoughts are wrong.

With a lack of confidence, the world takes on a slightly scary tone, even when you're in friendly company. Take, for example, a chat with your friend at the pub. Within the few hours (or more, depending on the occasion...) that you're there, there will probably be moments of silence; those small pockets of air outside conversation where you've said all you can say about one thing and you're getting ready to launch into another. Now, the rational mind knows that this is normal. It's very rare that a conversation continues non-stop without any gaps. After all, people don't just sit down opposite each other and talk continuously for an allotted time then say their goodbyes and leave.

But now that couple-second gap of not saying anything has turned into a few seconds and the irrational mind starts to get louder. Now you start questioning everything about the situation – is it normal for this to happen between friends? Have people around us noticed? All of this takes up valuable thinking space with which you could be remembering something you wanted to talk about (you know, the 'solution' to this imaginary 'problem'). But wait – now the few seconds have turned into 10 seconds and your friend is pulling out their phone. Do they want to leave? Are they uncomfortable? Do they want to be my friend anymore?

Now the irrational mind presents you with two choices, neither of which are what you want, but one of which seems safer. Option 1: say anything. Just blurt something out that could start the conversation again – but be aware that whatever you say carries with it a high chance of being irrelevant, raising the risk of them not understanding what you're talking about and further awkwardness ensuing. Option 2 (the safe option): wait for them to say something. Yes, it's not what an 'interesting' person would do, but at least you're saved from the completely theoretical embarrassment that might occur through the hypothetical disaster you've convinced yourself is an absolute certainty if you choose option 1.


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How social anxiety can quickly morph into loneliness

As you can see, in a socially anxious and irrational state of mind, even the tiniest of moments can morph into horrifying, excruciating experiences that will (I'm not joking here) haunt your thoughts for the foreseeable future. And each time they resurface in your mind, they bring with them all of the same psychological baggage that they did when they first occurred.

Naturally, these are not thoughts you want to be thinking about all the time. In fact, if possible, you want to limit as many of these occurrences in your life as possible. So what do you do? You begin adopting behaviours that means they simply can't happen. You start limiting your social plans, or cancelling them altogether. Again, it's not what somebody 'interesting' would do, but at least you can stay safe from any more of those psychological nasties ruining your day, eh?

Over time, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, you end up creating the image that you don't want to portray. If your brain were a castle, the metaphorical drawbridge to your personality has been drawn up and the social skills that you oh-so-wish you could develop further are locked inside, shrivelled up and starved from their lack of deployment.

Eventually, you find yourself in a far lonelier space. Those aspects of your personality – your supposed boringness and inability to be social (which remember is what you already think is true) – have become a reality. The friends you already feared you didn't have are, well, not there (perhaps not permanently, but certainly temporarily) and all you're left with are the thoughts that started the whole process in first place.

And let me tell you, those thoughts don't get any less debilitating. You'd think that with their appetite to make you withdraw from social situations now thoroughly quenched that they'd be satisfied. You're officially saved from any possible social embarrassment, so job done. But instead, they're just joined by different thoughts. You still have the voice telling you you're not as sociable and likeable as you should be, except now – although very little compared with the mountains of evidence you've compiled over the years to suggest that you are, in fact, sociable – you might have some evidence in favour of this theory. And these thoughts are joined by others convincing you that you've messed it all up, there's no going back, and that you will be alone forever.

You're anti-social. You're lonely. You are the complete opposite of a 'real man'.

The root of the issue(s)

I've found myself in downward mental health spirals and their resulting feelings of loneliness multiple times in my life (I still do), and I have very often been presented with the solution to 'reach out'. I think it's fair to say that this something we hear a lot when it comes to experiencing mental health issues or feeling lonely, which is understandable because it's logical: reaching out in some way – especially in a world where we're as connected as ever – is a fairly simple step to take. And to be fair, it really can help.

But just because the literal action is simple, doesn't mean the act of doing it is, especially when your thoughts have swirled through your head long enough that even just sending a text has become a monumentally terrifying act. At this point, 'reaching out' has become something you've convinced yourself to avoid.

The other problem with this approach is that we're focusing on the wrong part of the problem. 'Reaching out' is what we're encouraged to do when we've already arrived at a bad place – but what about the causes of the issues in the first place? I've clearly made the case for how tired stereotypes of what a 'real man' should be have fed the development of mental health issues that have plagued my own life. But in order to talk about this on a broader scale, I think we need to go deeper. Why is it, for example, that a man like myself places so much weight on the supposed expectations of society? In our world of connectivity, are we focussed too much on the benefits of being connected to others, and not enough on learning to be happy on our own?

I hope for the day where we'll have the answers to questions like these, and that the rates of mental health issues and loneliness in men will start to drop. Until then though, we need to start making it easier for these conversations to occur. We need to talk more openly about mental health issues in men and the pressures they feel from society and work backwards to understand the root causes of these issues. Otherwise we'll continue in this perpetual race to treat men's mental health issues, without ever being able to stop them developing to begin with.


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