Male Mental Health and the risks of friendship and bonding deficits.
Yeah, I know, we are all supposed to be tougher than new rope and capable of shrugging off every emotional blow like The Terminator deflected bullets.
But, the reality is, that just isn’t …well…reality. Men are no tougher than women emotionally, they just are conditioned by society and cultural norms to hide when they are hurting.
And that is what is killing us, literally and figuratively. Studies have shown that suppressing negative emotions like depression, anxiety and anger lead directly to the development of congestive heart disease, the number one killer of men.
And while CHD is also the leading cause of death for women, men develop the ailment seven to ten years earlier than women and, therefore, are twice as likely to experience a heart attack than are females.
And it isn’t just heart disease that is killing us, we are killing ourselves at rapidly rising levels. On average, 123 men kill themselves in America every day, up 26% since 1999. And while reported cases of depression are still twice as high for women as they are for men, that is likely because women are substantially more likely to report feeling sad than are their male counterparts.
“Men may have depression, but it’s often harder for them to give a voice to it, recognize it, and deal with it,” said Ted Guastello, director of operations for the Newport Academy, a mental health center with facilities around the country. “There may be many more men out there who are depressed, but they don’t report it.”
Men Don’t Share Emotions With Other Men
Not only aren’t men reporting depression to their doctors, they aren’t sharing their feelings with their male friends, either. And we all know why: it just isn’t the manly thing to do. If The Rock doesn’t need a hug, neither do I. And yet ironically, Dwayne Johnson himself, doesn’t buy into the traditional mandates of masculine stoicism.
But, the truth is, men do need a hug, just as often as women do. The problem is we can’t always get them from the women in our lives. That was how ‘James’, a 39-year-old executive in London felt. What he needed was much more than just a hug and some words of encouragement. James required serious counseling and professional treatment, but the depression he was feeling kept him from seeking the help he needed.
He dealt with depression and feelings of loneliness since he was 19 and, over that time, the burden on him built to the point where it was overwhelming and consuming, getting so bad that he actually planned his suicide. And even though he was married, he didn’t feel like he could share his problems with his wife.
He didn’t want to burden her with the problems he struggled with his whole life, so, instead, he kept up a light-hearted facade that deceived his family and friends into thinking he was fine.
“The clarity I had thinking about (suicide) was completely fogged over by what that would do to the people close to me,” he told the BBC . “Did I think they would be better without me? Yes.”
But, ultimately, it was concern about his family that led him to lock himself in a bathroom at work where he scrolled through his contacts list of friends and business acquaintances, looking for someone with whom he could talk and unburden himself.
He settled on his female friend, Claire, not one of the “lads” he’d known his whole life, who he’d played soccer and cricket with during his school years. He chose Claire because he knew she would empathize and listen without judgment or criticism.
For an hour-and-a-half, James poured his heart out, sobbing over the phone about how he wasn’t “coping well” and how his depression was getting the best of him. Claire simply listened the whole time and, in James’ words, talked him off the ledge.
“That was the initial opening of the dam,” he said about the first time in his life that he opened up to another person about the emotions, sadness and sense of hopelessness that was slowly killing him. The question is, why did he turn to a woman in this time of great emotional pain and not one of his closest male friends?
In the United Kingdom, suicide is the number one killer of men under the age of 50 (it is 3rd for men under 34 in the U.S.) but the English tradition of “keeping a stiff upper lip” prevents many of these men from sharing the desperation they feel with male friends who might be able to help them.
Why didn’t the nearly 4000 English men who killed themselves in 2018 turn to their male friends for help? Because, to use an English phrase, men are bollocks at friendship.
Men Suck at Friendships
The reality is men need more male friends. And, not only that, they need much deeper, more emotionally supportive ones like those that women have. Obesity, smoking, excessive drinking, these aren’t the greatest threats to the health of men today. Loneliness is.
Adult men, particularly white and heterosexual ones, have the fewest number of friends of any group in American society. Not only that, but the friends they do have provide the least amount of emotional support, involve the lowest amount of experience-sharing and engender lower levels of trust than all other friendship groups.
When men do bond, it is usually over activities like golf, watching sports, just doing stuff, than it is over conversations about ideas, emotions and issues.
Dr. Geoffrey Greif, author of Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships, calls these kinds of relationships “shoulder-to-shoulder” relationships, as opposed to ones most common to women, which he calls “Face-to-face.”
In his book, Dr. Greif suggests that close male friendships are most important and most developed among very young males, such as those still in school, and between very old men, those for whom most of life’s demands – working, building careers, raising children, nurturing marriages – is already past them.
The very young and the very old, in Dr. Greif’s view, are the ones who have the time and energy to devote to developing and maintaining male friendships.
The rest, who make up the vast majority of men, those who have to navigate the 40 years of so between school and retirement, simply don’t have the expendable hours to create and sustain lots of male friendships. Too many things get in the way, things that require an expanding amount of a man’s time.
And it is those things – school plays, karate practice, business trips, soccer matches – that take up all the leisure time men once had to spend at the bar or on the links with their male friends.
But, the reality is women have the same exact demand on them and, somehow, they manage to keep, nurture and even expand their relationships with female friends over years.
How do they succeed where men so often fail? Why are men crap at friendships?
“That’s an important question,” said Ezra Klein, the co-founder of Vox and a blogger on men’s issues. “Because we literally are—it is literally the case that men have fewer friends than women, and as we get older we have fewer, and fewer, and fewer friends. Some of us have no friends at all, and the resulting loneliness becomes a huge health risk.”
Friendships Change for Males at 15
This lack of friends, especially close ones, doesn’t really manifest itself with males until around the age of 15. That is what NYU psychologist Niobe Way determined in her study of male teenage friendships.
She found that boys and girls equally talked about their emotions up until around 15 when boys reported needing or having fewer close male friends than they had in the past. That age, 15, is also when boys begin committing suicide at a rate four times greater than do girls.
“During these years, young men are learning what it means to be a ‘real man.’ The #1 rule: avoid everything feminine,” Prof. Way said in a speech at NYU:
“To be close friends, men need to be willing to confess their insecurities, be kind to others, have empathy and sometimes sacrifice their own self-interest. ‘Real men,’ though, are… supposed to be self-interested, competitive, non-emotional, strong (with no insecurities at all), and able to deal with their emotional problems without help. Being a good friend, then, as well as needing a good friend, is the equivalent of being girly.”
Mr. Klein agreed with her assessment, adding,
“There’s a lot more discomfort, particularly among young men, with friendships that are [rooted in] talking about what’s going on in your life, and talking about how you’re feeling. But if your friendship is based on activities—on hanging out, playing video games, doing sports, or whatever manly things we’re supposed to be doing—then as your life changes, as you move away, have children, or you get married, and you have a job, then how do you keep those friendships up? Because the material that they were based on is no longer there. And so the friendships fall away.”
Men Can Have Better Friendships
So, how can men have better friendships that last lifetimes, like women’s do? Can they maintain and nurture emotion-based male friendships even though social normalization has told them such relationships aren’t masculine?
The answer is yes, but not without challenging some of the things they’ve been taught and that society expects of them. That means they have to accept some social risk, of sticking out and appearing perhaps less masculine than other men in their social circles.
That means they have to recognize the reason they can’t comfortably share emotional vulnerability with their males friends because that is the way society in the past set things up. It is society, not them, that assigned certain behaviors the distinction of being masculine and others being not masculine.
If they want to have deeper, more meaningful and supportive relationships with their male friends, men will have to possess the courage to step out of the construct in which they were trapped by social pressure.
They also have to recognize that the desire for intimacy and deep emotional connections with other men is normal and only suppressed by social pressure. To change this, men brave enough to bring the need for greater bonds between males have to find ways to normalize this with the other men in their lives.
Sharing articles like this one is a good start. Publicly sharing the desire to have closer bonds with male friends is another.
It is also important for men to share their fears, emotions and concerns with other men and to have the courage to make such expressions normal parts of their regular communications with friends. Sharing these emotions will make it easier for other men to do the same things and give them permission to seek each other out for support.
And, finally, it is critical to re-educate young boys that having emotions and expressing them isn’t a sign of weakness. It is, instead, a sign of strength, honesty and a willingness to confront one’s problems head-on, rather than to just bury them behind a still upper lip and a false display of machismo.