Trigger warning for discussion of depression and suicide.
(Author’s Note: Much of the material for this post and subsequent posts in this series comes from this document on men’s mental health problems.)
Men are currently undergoing a social support crisis.
“Social capital” is the social connectedness of a particular person– his or her connections within and between social networks. In study after study, men have been shown to have a lower level of social capital than women. Two-thirds of British women feel fully engaged with their social group, compared to a little more than half of men; 17% of British men report complete disconnection and lack of support, compared to 11% of British women. Men are less likely to contact their friends often, less likely to be attached to their neighborhood, less likely to feel social support.
This is a serious problem. Human beings are social animals. Feeling supported by one’s social group is key in not only recovering from depression when one has it but in preventing depression in the first place. Feeling completely and utterly alone can, and usually does, make people depressed and suicidal– and coupled with the withdrawal and isolation characteristic of depression, it can make getting the support a depressed man need far more difficult. Less than a third of British men feel comfortable talking to their family or friends about their emotions (compared to about half of British women); the other two-thirds could easily be horribly depressed and no one would know or be able to offer support.
Far too many men have essentially one source for emotional support: their romantic partners. Half of British men are comfortable talking to a romantic partner about their feelings (the other half, one hopes, are single, not in ridiculously shitty relationships). Men in stable long-term relationships experience better mental health than men who are not, far more so than women. The death of a romantic partner, breakups and divorces are a common precursor to suicide; single men are the most likely demographic to kill themselves. Instead of relying on a robust social network, men all too often can only fully connect emotionally to one person.
Clearly, this does not have a biological basis. Men are surely capable of having strong platonic friendships, as we can see by taking a look at basically any culture except modern Western culture ever. One study suggests that four factors may make a man less likely to have strong emotional friendships: homophobia against gay men, strong emotional restraint, a lack of male parental models of strong friendship and strong masculine self-identity.
Hello, there’s our old friend femmephobia! Nice to see you, femmephobia. How have you been?
Femininity has long been associated with nurturance, care, emotions and mutual support. Masculinity has long been associated with friends who do things together and express their affection through nothing more than a manly handclasp. Two heterosexual women who snuggle together watching a movie is generally treated as a nonissue or at worst treated with a raised eyebrow; two men who snuggle together watching a movie are the gayest gay gay thing that ever gayed.
The strongest model of male friendship our culture has is the “bromances” of Judd Apatow movies, which are played for laughs, often referred to as being “gay” in a way a strong female friendship would not be and treated as a hangover of boyhood, proving how immature the main character is, that the man leaves behind when he grows up and gets married. Even the name presents a strong male friendship as an odd form of romance, as opposed to as its own creature.
But femmephobia isn’t the complete explanation. Homophobia, coupled with the idea that men always want sex and never want emotional engagement, means that male friendships will be interpreted as gay, which is clearly the worst thing ever. And fathers or other male caregivers who don’t have strong friendships, possibly because of these toxic cultural narratives, can leave men without a model for how strong male friendships even work, a lack which our culture does not make up for.
However, developing a strong model of male friendship is a necessity to battle the high rate of male depression. Men must be encouraged to seek emotional support from people besides their romantic partners; the society must stop accusing straight men who are close friends of being “gay” (and, incidentally, stop treating gay as a bad thing). Without it, far too many men will become depressed through loneliness and isolation and, without a community to turn to, will end up taking their own lives.