Maintaining your social life is as important as managing your diet or your gym schedule. “Men with more friendships live longer, healthier lives,” says Dr Geoffrey Greif, the author of Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships.
Dozens of studies prove your social network is vital to your health. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that simply being on good terms with your neighbours can cut your stroke risk by almost 50 per cent. Another study at the University of Georgia found loneliness can be as damaging to your mortality as smoking.
But many Australian men feel socially isolated. A study by Beyond Blue found that less than two-thirds of men are satisfied with the quality of their social relationships. The research, which surveyed 3750 men nationwide, also found that when men hit 30, their social lives deteriorate, a drop-off accompanied by declining support.
"Men take friendships for granted, but without proper maintenance, those relationships can wither away,” says Dr Thomas Joiner, a professor of psychology at Florida State University and author of Lonely at the Top. “That can lead to insomnia, depression and even suicide."
There’s no doubt that too many men struggle to cope with life’s hardships in the absence of friends to lean on. One in eight Australian guys will experience depression, while 80 per cent of all suicides are men, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Frayed social networks may not be the sole cause behind these grim stats. But as Dr Clare Shann, Global Mental Health Lead for the Movember Foundation, explains: “There are strong links between loneliness and poor mental health.”
Part of the issue, says Shann, is that men are still less likely than women to share their problems and seek help. “Guys often say, ‘I'd always be there for my mate’. But at the same time they also admit they wouldn't feel comfortable asking their own friends for support. Someone has to make the first move.”
How then do you let your mates know they really can lean on you for support?
“You need to demonstrate that it's okay to show vulnerability,” Shann says. “You have to talk about times when you've struggled or been frightened. Don’t wait until you're struggling or you only encourage that conspiracy of silence.”
If you have been affected by this story, support is available here.
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467
Beyondblue: 1300 224 636