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. 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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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