Vicky Bird (BACP accredited counsellor) explains why men often feel lonely and isolated with no place to go…
Do men struggle with friendships?
Many men struggle with close friendships. You often see men meeting socially for light-hearted, banter-based contact, and discussions around shared interests or experience but they tend to avoid vulnerability, which interferes with closeness. Recent research by the mental health charity Movember suggests that one in three men have no close friends.
Why is this?
It’s often a combination of things that are born from the way men are raised and taught to see themselves. This is largely but not solely due to the way men and women are brought up differently in our culture.
Boys are often conditioned from an early age – they’re told not to cry, to be strong and silent. They are even told to like football and women so it’s easy to see how some men could feel like an impostor if they don’t fit with this version of ‘how a man should be’. It means a lot of men close down.
They start to believe that ‘real men’ don’t feel like this. Of course, we know this isn’t true but when you learn to repress emotion, ‘act manly’ and show stoicism, it’s no wonder men find it hard to let their guard down and come forward when they need help. This can be very isolating, and can feed into depression, leaving men feeling lonely, isolated, and stuck with their problems with no place to go.
Where does this leave men?
These gender roles have left men believing they have to hide how they’re feeling. Society’s strong message to men is that it’s not okay to share problems or to be vulnerable.
So, they don’t. They bottle it up. They don’t share their problems even with those closest to them. This feeds into the idea that it’s a weakness to talk about our problems and interferes with men forming close friendships or supporting each other.
Are the differences purely down to upbringing or social pressure?
I think there are biological differences. I think women are wired to be more relationship focussed. And men find it easier to learn certain tasks such as navigating. Some studies demonstrate how male and female brains are wired differently.
Do men have different emotional needs?
Because men and women are often brought up differently you could be led to think they have different emotional needs but there isn’t a difference. Men have emotional needs in just the same way that women do. They feel sadness, anxiety, shame, guilt, loss, and anger in the same way.
The difference is women have been given ‘permission’ and encouraged to be open about these thoughts and feelings. This is possibly why females feel more comfortable when sharing their troubles. Women tend to meet to talk, whereas men tend to bond over shared experience such as team sports.
Are there specific places men can go to bond with others?
There are many charities run by men, for men. Some I’m aware of include
Andy’s Man Club. The charity runs talking groups for men who have either been through a storm, are currently going through a storm or have a storm brewing in life. https://andysmanclub.co.uk/
Men’s Sheds is a similar organisation. They provide community spaces for men to connect, converse and create. The activities are often similar to those of garden sheds, but for groups of men to enjoy together. They help reduce loneliness and isolation. https://menssheds.org.uk/
Why is it so important for men to seek help?
It’s important because it saves lives. We know that there are high rates of suicide in men across all age groups, but particularly in those under 50 years old. Men are three times more likely to die by suicide than women and it is the biggest killer in men under 45. This is a very sobering and sad statistic.
Even though one in eight men suffer with a mental health problem, men are more likely to view help as self-indulgent or wait until they are in crisis before seeking support. We want to encourage men to come forward sooner.
What would help men come forward?
Men need to hear that it’s okay to seek help and that their problems are valid. I think it’s also great to see so many male role models/people in the media coming forward to talk about their own mental health struggles. People like Prince Harry and Dwayne Johnson. I think it’s really powerful when those in the spotlight have the courage to stand up and reject the myth that only those who are weak experience anxiety and depression. This can help defeat the stigma that stops so many reaching out for help.
Accessibility in terms of support is just as crucial. The option of online therapy has certainly helped because it can provide anonymity, there’s no waiting room, and you can speak to someone from the comfort and safety of your own home.
Are more men coming forward for help?
I think things are changing for the better. More men are accessing counselling and seeing it as a positive step, as well as finding acceptance and help. There is an ongoing shift in wider attitudes towards gender roles and I think men are starting to recognise counselling isn’t just for women.
If I think back to the early days, I only ever saw women in the counselling room and over the last three years, I’ve seen a significant increase in men coming forward. Don’t get me wrong – compared to women the numbers are still low, but I have to admit I now consistently have a 50-50 split between male and female patients which is a significant change.
How does therapy help?
In coming to therapy, you learn that your feelings are valid and that it’s good to talk. You learn ways to express what’s happening to you and learn how to make sense of it and make changes. Therapy should be a positive experience where you are given help to work through your difficulties without judgement. You begin to understand that you’re not the only one feeling this way and this realisation makes it easier for you to share your thoughts and feelings with others. You start to move away from superficial friendships to something more meaningful and supportive. You also give others permission to do the same.
What are the best way to access help?
There are various ways to access help, from peer support to private therapy. If you are in crisis and need urgent help, dial NHS 111.
Samaritans also provide a national 24-hour service for anyone who needs it. Dial 116 123 to speak to a trained counsellor.
People can also see their GP who can provide a referral for therapy via the NHS services.
If you decide to go private, my advice is to check that any medical professional is qualified, has proven experience and is registered with a regulatory body such as the BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) or the BABCP (British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy). You can look to see if the person is accredited – to become accredited you must meet standards of training and experience.
Most of all, it’s important to find someone you connect with – someone you feel safe with. Having a counsellor you like, who you believe can help you, is important. Most offer a brief telephone call so you can get a sense of the person, and this also allows you to ask any questions.