Male Loneliness: what is it and what can be done

13 mins read

With eight days still left to go, the Movember efforts of Stirling University have already raised over £15,000, 50 clubs and groups across the university taking part in the fundraising effort in aid of men’s health. So, with Movember in full swing, it’s worth taking a step back and looking more closely at one of their core missions – combating mental health problems in men.

A 2019 YouGov survey found that as many as 32% of men do not feel like they have a best friend (25% of women felt that way), and 24% of men do not feel like they have someone they can turn to with their problems (just 18% of women felt the same). Of the men who did say they had someone to turn to, only 48% reported having a friend to talk to. Male loneliness is a real problem.

Loneliness is a key contributor to poor mental health and suicide, as reflected in worldwide data. Movember’s website states that one man dies by suicide every minute of every day, accounting for 69% of all suicides globally. On top of the adverse mental health effects and risk of suicide, there’s an increasing body of research showing that loneliness is as dangerous to our physical health as smoking or drinking. Male loneliness has been referred to as a ‘shadow pandemic’ because of how sharply it was thrown into sight during the coronavirus lockdowns.

University can be an extremely difficult time, with all kinds of new competing pressures for young people. The giddying thrill of discovery is held in place by the gravity of everything you’re suddenly expected to do. For many, university marks a step away from a support system that has been in place for years. It’s uncommon for a whole group of school friends to end up at the same university, and if you’re the one lone lad who ended up elsewhere, knowing your pals are all continuing to see each other in your absence can be very isolating.

Rob Matthews (left) & Robbie Wales (right), the Stirling Movember Ambassadors. Image Credit: Stirling Uni Movember / Jonathan Boomer

Many young men are led to believe that they have to put on a brave face, never show their anxieties and always look to be in a winning position,  but this is one of the huge disservices that the patriarchy does to men (curse you, toxic masculinity). In 2022 there’s no reason to stick to those tired old gender norms. Women can be bold and assertive and have sex on purpose; men can be vulnerable and anxious and actively want to form meaningful connections. The passive associations men are often made to believe are all they can have with each other is a relic of the past. Forming deep friendships and confiding in each other is not only good for your mental health but has been shown to have physical benefits too, while being lonely can be as bad for you as smoking a packet a day.

Some people will easily slip into a new group at university, and some will find it harder. Some will find new friends but nobody to confide in. Some will feel on the outside of every flat outing. Before giving you some top tips, let’s pause and remind ourselves: everyone’s experiences are both personal and individual, but are part of a huge patchwork quilt that makes up university life. Even the people you don’t feel you have anything in common with are broadly experiencing similar things to you. It’s so easy to lose sight of this but we must keep it in mind. Everyone is going through their own thing, but we’re going through it together.

Signs of Loneliness

When you’re in a bustling environment like a university, seeing people every day for lectures and labs, it can be hard to understand what loneliness truly is, and it’s not uncommon to have a feeling of sadness that can’t be traced back easily. You might put it down to stress or homesickness, but there are some telltale signs. Loneliness in young men has been described as reaching epidemic rates, so take a moment and think about yourself and how you’re really feeling. Here are some common signs of loneliness:

  • You feel really alone even when surrounded by people. This is a weird one, but have you ever been at the Union with a big group and yet felt weirdly on your own, or like nobody would notice if you headed home? It’s a really common sign that you’re feeling loneliness on a deep level.
  • You don’t have anyone to confide in. You might have general conversations with lots of people about all kinds of things, but when it comes to how you’re feeling, you keep it to yourself. Having someone you can talk to about your emotions is a lot more important than we give it credit for.
  • You get really tired when you try to socialise. If it feels like hard work when you’re out and about with people, you might be putting effort into the wrong things. Maybe you’re used to being the joker and want to make everyone laugh, but it comes at the expense of forming genuine connections, or you’re too concerned with trying to impress people that you forget to let them get to know who you really are.

Those aren’t the only things of course, and feeling one or more of them doesn’t mean you are definitely lonely. It’s just a starting point – everyone should regularly take stock of how they feel and if having a good think about these possibilities leads you to determine that you’re quite happy, that’s great. But, if you decide that actually, you’re feeling the loneliness more keenly than you had allowed, read on.

Friendship is good for your mind and your body. Image Credit: Pexels / Matheus Ferrero

Tips to overcome loneliness

The good news is that there are some very solid strategies to overcome male loneliness and make friends that will be by your side for a long time to come. It’s not easy – in fact you do have to put in some effort – but it’s so worth it.

  • Join some clubs and societies that you’re interested in. This is the absolute top tip. It is so much easier to get to know people while you’re engaged in a shared interest together. In fact, this is thought to be a core difference between how men and women are socialised to make friends (yup, the pesky patriarchy again, but it’s a system we have to work around for now) – it’s described as “face to face” vs “side by side”. Women are more socialised to spend their time talking, e.g. getting a coffee and sitting face to face across the table. Men are more socialised to participate in shared activities – playing or watching sport, for example. There are a ton of options and they’d all love to have you.
  • Make an effort to spend time with people. Not to contradict the previous point but start inviting people you want to become closer to out for coffee or lunch, in true “face-to-face” friendship style. Low stakes situations where there is an opportunity to talk one to one. It might feel hard to do at first, but it won’t be long before you’re the master of “Want to grab a brew? I’ve got an hour free between lectures and I’m gonna grab a coffee at X place X time, be good to catch up.” (A tried and tested template). The key to this is being actively engaged in strengthening friendships rather than hoping they passively improve when you hang out in a group.
  • Be vulnerable with people. If you’re hanging out with someone and they ask how you’re doing, if you’ve been having a hard time, then tell them. Open up to them and trust them with your emotions, and be genuine. Encourage them to do the same, or at least be kind and responsive if they do. Are you worried about an essay, dreading going home for Christmas, or feeling under pressure at work? Talk to people about it. It will make your friendships stronger and you’ll feel better about sharing your concerns. People will begin to reciprocate and a real bedrock of trust and respect can form.
  • Give it time. A recent article in BBC Science Focus stated that it takes around 50 hours to upgrade from acquaintance to casual friend, and another 150 to get from casual to close friends. It takes time and effort to develop meaningful relationships, but remember it’s something everyone is trying to do. You’re not wasting anyone’s time. Everyone needs a pal.

If you’ve got any top advice to share to combat male loneliness, give us a Tweet at @brignewspaper, and remember that the time and effort you spend now on making lasting connections will build friendships you’ll have long into your life. The bloke you invite for a drink next week might be your best man in ten years’ time. Toxic masculinity is self-perpetuating and makes you feel like you have to pretend, and that you can’t speak out, hiding the fact that you are far from the only one feeling this way. Imagine how you’d feel if someone asked you out for a drink to catch up for an hour. Pretty good, right? A wise bloke once said: “be the invitations for coffee you want to see in the world.”

Featured Image Credit: Pexels / Markus Spiske

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