According to the 2023 Social Connection Report in Australia, both men and women indicate similar levels of loneliness, with approximately 3 in 10 individuals of either gender reporting feelings of isolation. However, it’s a widely acknowledged fact that men are often less inclined to seek support. This trend is also evident in our In Great Company volunteer program, where, since 2019, out of 460 supported clients only 30% have been male.
Research on adult friendships, especially for men, highlights the challenges of making and maintaining deep, meaningful connections. While there isn’t a single study that encapsulates this idea, several studies and findings contribute to this understanding.
“Close friendships protect our mental and physical health, and men who prioritize those relationships are fighting off one of the most harmful things to human health — loneliness. What (men) are at risk of losing is this sense of not being alone in the world or not being alone in their experience. Disclosure of emotional distress improved (men’s) emotional well-being, increased feelings of being understood and resulted in less reported loneliness.” says Dr. Frank Sileo, a psychologist based in Ridgewood, New Jersey.
Challenging stereotypes and societal pressures
When Dr. Sileo started his research back in 1995, stereotypes that male bonding would be, or become, sexual in nature were inaccurate, but revealed some of what may be holding some men back from developing meaningful friendships. Even today, decades later, though assumptions may have evolved, societal pressures persist, making it challenging for men to openly express the vulnerability and intimacy needed for close friendships.
As we often label relationships as “feminine,” this can create the perception that admitting the need for friendships is a sign of weakness or a liability for men. The inclination to suppress vulnerability, toughen up, and avoid showing emotions ultimately lead to feelings of loneliness. Friendships are a fundamental aspect of the human experience. Yet many men from older generations were raised in cultures that conflicted with this inherent need.
The tide is turning
A significant turning point catalysed by the COVID-19 pandemic, was its role in illuminating the pervasive issue of loneliness. The heightened awareness surrounding the vulnerability of individuals in our society, especially the older generation, has played a pivotal role in recognising and extending support to more male clients. In this past year alone, our program has witnessed a remarkable surge, with the number of male clients increasing by 300%.
We have also witnessed a growth in the number of male volunteers and an increasing number of uplifting stories of connection involving men through our program. Among these, the story of volunteer Dale Berrie and his client Jon, featured in an article by ABC Central Victoria, has touched the hearts of many people across Australia. Both men seeking connection found it in a simple friendship formed during the pandemic, that has led to improving each other’s lives.
The path to connection
For some, a deep, meaningful connection with one person is essential for fostering feelings of connection, while for others, it could be as simple as contact with a stranger. Even engaging in open conversations, whether publicly or privately, can become a means of combating loneliness.
The key is not looking at circumstances and assuming what feelings should be associated with it, but actually asking yourself if you are lonely. Then identifying what kind of connection would be appropriate, and reflecting on the quality of your existing relationships, are important initial steps. The subsequent actions will largely depend on each individual’s unique circumstances.
It is important to note that community is important. Restricting one’s struggles, questions, and concerns to a single person or relationship may not always offer the most effective support. For those experiencing loneliness due to a lack of friends or family and seeking to connect with new people in their community, programs like In Great Company can play a pivotal role in facilitating this through shared activities with friendly visitor volunteers.