The Male Friendship Crisis
This article discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide please call the US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, textHOME to 741741, or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.
Many American men have a friendship problem.
In a 2021 Saturday Night Live sketch called “Man Park,” a young man waits anxiously for his female partner to return from work. He has few if any friends and has had little social interaction all day. She listens, barely feigning interest in his verbal torrent about the events of his day. She responds by mothering her partner, suggesting he go outside and play with his friends. When he replies that he has no friends, she takes him to the “man park”—a dog park for men—to play with other males. Like cute little puppies, the men enjoy each other’s company as the women cheer them on from the sidelines.
This is meant to be comedy, of course, but as with all good satire, the sketch touches on a very real issue: the loneliness that too many men experience. Avrum Weiss confirmed the SNL scenario in an article on Psychology Today:
“In heterosexual couples, women tend to handle all the social relationships for the couple and the children. This may fall to women because they are aware that their male partners do not have substantial relationships outside of the family as they do. The women may pull their partners into socializing with other couples so that the women can have more time socializing with each other without that becoming an issue in the marriage. They may even arrange ‘play dates’ with their friends’ partners so that their partner will be more interested in socializing as a couple.
Approximately one in five American men say they do not have a close friend, according to the Survey Center on AmericanLife's May 2021 American Perspectives Survey. “Only 30 percent of men reported having a private conversation with a close friend when they divulged personal emotions in the past week,” wrote psychiatry professor Charles Hebert in Newsweek in February.
This comes at a cost. “Loneliness increases the risk of mental illness among men,” warned Hebert. “Persistent loneliness independently predicts risk of Alzheimer's disease. Additionally, psychiatric illnesses such as major depressive disorder often go unrecognized in men due to reluctance to discuss one's symptoms.”
Loneliness can also induce substance misuse. When people feel lonely, misunderstood, or unloved, they frequently turn to drugs or alcohol to suppress their emotional pain. Unfortunately, their substance misuse may isolate them even further from the people who are still on their side. Any ensuing addiction will create havoc with their careers and personal relationships. Thus, the maladaptive coping mechanism of substance use is likely to backfire—making them very sick and even lonelier than before.
As the COVID-19 pandemic converged with widespread loneliness and the addiction epidemic in the US two years ago, public health and mental health experts predicted further dramatic increases in substance misuse and mental health conditions.
“Even before imposed COVID-19 social restrictions, loneliness had been gaining attention as a public health crisis,” wrote Horigian, Schmidt, and Feaster in their 2020 study on loneliness, mental health, and substance use among young adults. “Distinct from objective social isolation and solitude, loneliness is the feeling of lacking needed social connections, and has been associated with depression, suicidality, substance abuse, and cognitive decline, as well as overall health and mortality.”
Isolation and social distancing brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic may have exacerbated the male friendship crisis but “broader structural forces may be playing a more important role,” reportedDaniel Cox on the findings from the May 2021 American Perspectives Survey:
“First, Americans are marrying later than ever and are more geographically mobile than in the past—two trends that are strongly associated with increasing rates of self-reported social isolation and feelings of loneliness. Second, American parents are spending twice as much time with their children compared to previous generations, crowding out other types of relationships, including friendships. Finally, Americans are working longer hours and traveling more for work, which may come at the cost of maintaining and developing friendships. In fact, perhaps reflecting its central place in the hierarchy of American social life, Americans are now more likely to make friends at work than any other way—including at school, in their neighborhood, at their place of worship, or even through existing friends.”
“It is typically only when they are divorced or widowed those men realize how few relationships they actually have that have not been arranged or managed by their partner, and how vulnerable they have been in depending entirely on their partners for all of the connection in their lives,” wrote Weiss.
Addiction and mental health journalist Johann Hari famously declared that the opposite of addiction is connection. Hari has also suggested that depression is largely driven by lost connections. If men are socially more disconnected than women, they face particular mental health and substance use consequences as a result.
According to the Mental Health Index published in January, men now face a significantly increased risk of addiction—up an alarming 80 percent between September and December 2021. In just three months, depression among men was up 118 percent, and social anxiety by 162 percent. When looking specifically at men ages 40-59, general anxiety was up 94 percent.
Using national data, other researchers noted a 21 percent increase in excessive drinking during the pandemic. The scientists simulated the drinking trajectories and liver disease trends in all US adults and estimated that a one-year increase in alcohol consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic will result in 8,000 additional deaths from alcohol-related liver disease, 18,700 cases of liver failure, and1,000 cases of liver cancer by 2040.
Loneliness, social disconnection, anxiety, depression, and substance misuse can have another tragic consequence for men: suicide.
Even before the highly stressful COVID pandemic, Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton suggested in a 2015 paper (and a subsequent 2021 book), that working-age white men and women without four-year college degrees were dying “deaths of despair” by suicide, drug overdoses, and alcohol-related liver disease at unprecedented rates.
Wyoming’s “prevention specialist” Bill Hawley believes that too many men are unwilling or unable to talk about their feelings. As Jose A. Del Real reported in the Washington Post, Hawley’s “official mandate is to connect people who struggle with alcohol and drug abuse, tobacco addiction, and suicidal impulses to the state’s limited social service programs.”
Some sociologists have cynically nicknamed the Mountain West America’s “suicide belt.”
“Across the United States, men accounted for79 percent of suicide deaths in 2020, according to a Washington Post analysis of new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which also shows Wyoming has the highest rate of suicide deaths per capita in the country,” wrote Del Real. “A majority of suicide deaths involve firearms, of which there are plenty in Wyoming, and alcohol or drugs are often a factor.”
Some researchers blame the pitfalls of toxic masculinity for the gender gap in suicides.
Toxic masculinity frequently turns outward in the form of violent behavior against others, but it can also turn inward.
“Talk saves lives,” Bill told the WashingtonPost — because it has saved his own life many times since he tried to kill himself two decades ago after a cascade of bad behavior and mental anguish led to a divorce, hopelessness, and estrangement from his two older sons.
Hawley now talks to other men “about that brokenness we all feel inside,” about “whole health: mind, body, and soul.”Some men feel uncomfortable with being vulnerable but others respond by openly“talking about their addictions, about their problems with middle-aged bullies who still taunt them about ‘acting gay,’ about their search for scarce therapists in rural America who can help them heal.”
Christopher Williams, LMFT, the founder and CEO of Renovari Counseling in Orange County, California, treats a significant number of high-performing men experiencing mental health conditions who feel disconnected from family and friends. “It is increasingly common to find men who appear highly successful and present an outward appearance of ‘having it all together’ to be carrying around significant emotional and relational struggles in their internal world,” Williams reports. “One of the most important aspects of our work is showing men the heavy cost and suffering due to the lack of meaningful relationships in their lives, while helping them build healthy, life-giving connections.”
The problem of men lacking meaningful relationships was so apparent to Williams that he teamed up with FoundrySteamboat CEO Ben Cort to offer a series of men's retreats. These four-day experiences bring together small groups of male professionals who tend to be in executive leadership positions and who are experiencing loneliness, anxiety, and a reduced spiritual aspect.
“The retreat may be the first time in years or even decades that these men have openly talked about their emotional state or relationships with other men, realized that they shared these issues in common, and heard others with similar experiences and perspectives. This can be an incredibly cathartic and life-changing experience. Attendees come away feeling that they have made connections that can blossom into real friendships and understanding the importance of reconnecting deeply with partners, family members, and other people who are important in their lives outside of their work environment. I know this from direct experience. I attended one of Chris’s retreats three years ago as a participant and came away a better person. The time was cathartic because Chris is a master of his craft, and the environment, food, and fellow participants were so amazing. I’m always ‘too busy’ for things like this but I made time and remain thankful that I did. If you get the invite, do what it takes to attend,” says Cort.
The retreats are carefully planned to combine enjoyable activities like fly fishing, hiking, campfires, and meal times with lightly guided conversations directed and moderated by Williams and Cort. “We are here to start meaningful discussions and stimulate the discovery of important insights,” says Cort. “But the men do most of the work. They realize that when they allow themselves to explore the relational areas of their lives, which they often put aside, they have a lot to offer and a great deal of common ground to share with their peers.”
Cort and his colleagues at Foundry Treatment Center Steamboat regularly encounter men seeking help for behavioral health problems who feel isolated and alone. A lack of friends is a common factor affecting the program’s clients, and the program helps men understand how and why they lack friends and how to make change. Lifestyles of people with active addictions tend to make the affected person isolated. The side effects and behaviors of substance use disorders can alienate friends and family members. But it is equally important to understand that loneliness and isolation can also be the causes of substance misuse — these issues are directly connected. Often, helping men manage their addictive disorders and mental health conditions requires finding ways of healthily connecting with other people who can be supporters of recovery and add meaning and joy to life.
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