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June: Men’s Health Month The Current Epidemic (And It’s Not COVID-19)

Men’s Health

While the majority of Americans have recently experienced the difficult and stressful effects of isolation due to quarantine, there is one group of experts when it comes to loneliness and seclusion: Men. Long before COVID-19 shuttered businesses and workplaces, more and more men have found themselves facing their own closed doors. Opportunities for connection, meaningful friendship, and a life free of toxic masculinity are limited, if not completely inaccessible. The silent epidemic facing men is Isolation and disconnection, and it’s killing them at alarming rates.

American men are being hit hard with cultural, social and technological changes. The emotional and physical toll is showing up in a growing sense of detachment as boys navigate the adolescent and teen years, then the demands of work and family, and often later in life, a dangerous isolation resulting from divorce or the death of a spouse.

The rising rate of male suicide since 1999 has sounded an increasingly loud alarm. While there is data to suggest the rate of suicide for males aged 45 to 64 has stabilized, men are still four times more likely to die from suicide than women. The highest rate of suicide belongs to men 65 and older.

It’s the last resort of those who haven’t been able to find a way to engage in a healthy physical and emotional life that usually begins long before this last tragic choice. What’s causing some men to become disconnected from family, friends and community and to lose enthusiasm for life itself?

Some researchers call it “an epidemic of loneliness.”

Fighting on Two Fronts: Male Isolation Meets COVID-19 Isolation

For men who felt isolated prior to COVID-19, the coronavirus presents an additional battle for an already wounded soldier. Hindered by cultural, socio-economic, and gender-based expectations held by country and kin, the pressure for men to maintain these unrealistic standards and still maintain their mental health is often mutually-exclusive. The reality is that men sacrifice their mental health when forced to choose between the two.

Men and males comprise a demographic generally expected, fairly or not, to be successful breadwinners and providers; the professional and financial consequences alone in the wake of the virus may prove to be more than some men can bear. Insurance and payment issues, stigma, and the false notion that mental health issues are best managed alone, are just some of the barriers to care men face. A post-COVID-19 world is one with increased risk for even the most resilient — while men might need mental health care now more than ever, they’re less likely to seek help or receive treatment than any other demographic. In the wake of COVID-19, experts warn of a potential spike in suicides as American men struggle to find their footing in its aftermath. For many men, an end to isolation in quarantine will not mean an end to isolation in life.

Detachment and Connection

Perhaps Americans, or people in Western countries, have a perception that the evolution of gender and sexual roles, changing marriage and family arrangements, and more apparent flexibility in the workplace has offered men of all ages more choices and more freedom. But despite what may appear to be positive social changes that allow more room for individual choices, many men of all ages are suffering emotionally and psychologically.

Close Relationships Promote Health and Longevity

In an episode of “Hidden Brain” on NPR that examines men and loneliness, the discussion turned to “The Harvard Study of Adult Development” that looked at men’s lives over eight decades. As the mind-body connection became a subject of more intense research in the 1980s and 1990s, the study asked this question: “Who would you call in the middle of the night if you were sick or afraid?” Researchers discovered that men who had someone to turn to were happier with their lives. Close relationships also have a positive effect on physical health. The study found people who had warm and close relationships had less chronic disease and lived longer.

The Dangerous Ideal of American Masculinity

The lingering American ideal of masculinity emphasizes strength and independence. Sensitivity and emotion may be considered “weak.” That might be why men tend to reach out less for help, like counseling, if they are depressed. That can set them up for deepening depression or illness and for those most at-risk, perhaps even for suicide.

Since 1999, the rate of suicide for men aged 50-to-54 has increased by almost 50 percent. This raises doubts about one possible explanation for the increasing number of men who take their own lives, the idea that the economic collapse in 2008, job loss and the emotional and financial stress of not being able to support their families is a factor in male suicide. But what happened between 1999 and 2008 when the rate of suicide among middle aged men began to rise?

Some consider the rise in the use of cell phones, social media, online communication and trends like watching movies at home instead of going out to a theater have all contributed to a growing sense of isolation. Other factors may be distance from family and the dissolution of more traditional support networks, like community.

Evaporating Male Friendships

In a Boston Globe article with the headline,“The biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness,” author Bill Baker reflects on male friendships he didn’t realize were evaporating.

Boys engage in sports or just run with kids in the neighborhood. Teenagers hang out with their buddies. College men often have a group of friends who might go out for a beer, go to a football game, join a fraternity or take part in interest groups that may revolve around science or music. Young adult men have girlfriends, then wives, and the women often arrange social activities that keep them engaged.

Gay men may have close friendships or romantic relationships with men, but they often have the added social pressures, particularly as adolescents and teenagers, that can be extremely challenging.

Over many decades, men have been facing social changes and challenges that seem far from being resolved or even understood. The result that’s become increasingly apparent is loneliness, and that’s an issue that can be addressed.

5 Ways Men Can Connect with Others

  1. Maintain friendships with other men even when you are involved in a romantic relationship.
  2. Find time for your own activities even when the responsibilities of work and family seem to make it impossible. Make the time, so you have some vital social connections outside the family, because in the long-run, you’ll have more to give and you’ll be healthier.
  3. Reach out and speak first at work, on a train, or at a social gathering. While some people may not want to be bothered, many welcome the offer of connection.
  4. Plan a standing get-together with male friends and stick to it a much as possible. Boston Globe writer Billy Baker got a wake-up call about his fading friendships when he met an older man named Ozzy who wasn’t available for some activities because he had “Wednesday night.” It turned out Ozzy and his buddies had been getting together on Wednesday nights for years, just to hang out. They didn’t even have a special name for it, they just let it be “Wednesday night.” Baker realized he and his male friends kept being too busy to get together and the result was fading friendships.
  5. Forge new friendships – learn to accept the required changes of time. Some friends and acquaintances will move, change jobs, get divorced, find new interests or die. Men who welcome new opportunities for friendship are healthier and happier into their later years.

The main goal is to be aware of and avoid what “Hidden Brain” host Shankar Vedantam describes in the show as “the profound loneliness of American men.” It doesn’t have to be that way. It takes some reaching out, joining some activities or even just a smile. Researchers have been finding for decades that social connection leads to a more satisfying and healthier life.

References

Cohen, Rhaina, “Guys, We Have A Problem: How American Masculinity Creates Lonely Men,” Hidden Brain, NPR March 20, 2018

Baker, Billy, “The biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness,” Boston Globe, March 9, 2017

Original date of publication: April 30, 2018

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