Amanpour Michael McCarthy Andrew Reiner
A shadow pandemic in male suicide
14:58 - Source: CNN

Irish musician and mental health advocate Niall Breslin was standing alone in a coffee shop in March when he was approached by an elderly man.

After some brief small talk, the man made a surprisingly intimate admission to Breslin. He was deeply lonely. His wife had passed away a few years before, and the pandemic had made things even more tough on him.

As a long-time sufferer of anxiety and depression, loneliness was a feeling that Breslin knew all too well. He responded with a simple “of course you are,” and the elderly man started to cry.

It was a moment of mutual understanding, the type of interaction that perhaps would not have happened before the pandemic hit.

“It was lovely; it wasn’t an awkward moment,” Breslin said. “He asked me to come for a walk with him, and I said, ‘of course I can.’”

“This man is broken-hearted, and all he wants is a conversation,” he added.

As Monday marks the start of Mental Health Awareness week in the United Kingdom (and the month is dedicated to the issue in the US), the pandemic has heightened the sense of isolation that many men around the world were already feeling. But the pandemic may also be helping men of all ages become more aware of their mental well-being and needs.

Irish singer and mental health advocate Niall Breslin has seen some meaningful progress in how men speak to each other over the past year. Photo credit: Marc O'Sullivan

Old script

Research suggests that many men have suffered in silence for years.

Men are far less likely than women to reach out for help when they are feeling low, according to 2019 analysis from the American Journal of Men’s Health. And stark data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that American men die by suicide at a rate three and a half times higher than women. (Although women were more likely to attempt suicide, according to that data.)

Andrew Reiner, author of “Better Boys, Better Men,” has spent a career studying these issues. He points to a corrosive masculine culture that has been ingrained in adult men—a belief that they must be stoic and solve their problems by themselves.

“There’s this feeling that when you’ve got problems, to be a confident man you’ve (got) to handle them on your own,” said Reiner, a lecturer at Towson University’s Honors College.

It’s not just older men who are being held back by this distorted notion of what it means to be a man, Reiner said.

While young men tend to be more open and have a greater understanding of gender and tolerance, Reiner thinks that reaching out for emotional support is “one of the places where a lot of younger guys are still following the old script.”

Among men of all ages, experts say that cases of anxiety and depression do often go unreported.

Whether it’s because they feel like seeking support is showing weakness or other toxic attitudes around masculinity, a 2015 study from the American Journal of Men’s Health found that men are less likely than women to communicate their issues to loved ones and mental health professionals.

While this crisis in men’s mental health is not new, psychologist Niobe Way thinks the pandemic has amplified those issues.

“The data that boys and men have been suffering has been going on forever,” said Way, a professor of applied psychology at New York University. “Covid has made it worse because it’s harder to reach out.”

The emergence of the virus has compounded some of that pain.

The prevalence of depressive symptoms being reported by adult men in the US has increased in every age group during the pandemic, according to a September 2020 Boston University study.

And over the past twelve months, the UK emotional support helpline Samaritans has seen an uptick in male callers talking about a lack of human connection, according to Liz Scowcroft, Head of Research and Evaluation at Samaritans.

Crisis of connection

Men do find it much more challenging to maintain strong and meaningful friendships, studies have shown.

White, heterosexual men were found to have the fewest friends of anyone in the United States in a 2006 analysis of over two decades worth of data from the University of Arizona.

It’s that lack of closeness, the lack of meaningful relationships in men’s lives, that has been Way’s life work as a developmental psychologist. She calls it a crisis of connection.

Problems in men’s mental health start in their formative years due to a culture and social norms that don’t allow boys to be “human,” she said.

Young boys are “incredibly emotionally articulate, incredibly able to read the emotional world, talk about their feelings and desires, reach out to other boys and have deeply connected friendships.”

It is only as boys grow up and move to adolescence that Way sees that “it becomes almost impossible (to share emotions) because of a culture that we have created … they listen to that horrible masculine voice that says nothing matters.”

Hiding his vulnerability from his peers was something that plagued 22-year-old Canadian student Josh Kozelj for years. Kozelj had depression and anxiety from a young age, something that he constantly tried to hide.

“When I played basketball in high school, I just never wanted to discuss my depression or anxiety,” he said. “There is that stigma in a locker room that you never want to reveal yourself as mentally weak because when it comes to game time, you don’t want to be the guy in the locker room that is sensitive in such a macho arena.”

Josh Kozelj, 22, found it hard to reach out to friends in high school. 
Photo credit: Belle White

What the pandemic has revealed

It may have taken the loneliness of the pandemic for men to understand that they can reach out for help, and that there are more effective ways to cope than silence. While staying at home over the past year, Kozelj has had a much better handle of his friendships and his depression than he ever did as a teenager.

Communicating with other male friends virtually has removed some discomfort and allowed him to truly connect with them. “I have actually been able to alleviate depression and anxiety during the pandemic, he said just by asking a friend if they want to play video games. “As we are logging on, I’ll just ask them ‘how is your day going?” he said.

“Just asking small questions like that helps a lot. It’s a good ice breaker to finding out what’s going on in a guy’s life.”

With vaccines being distributed and normality slowly returning, Kozelj said he plans to continue to have deep conversations with his friends now that he can see them in person again.

For Breslin, the Irish musician, the raw emotion that he has seen men express to him over the past year has not only been refreshing; it has also been a powerful coping mechanism for him.

“I felt so disconnected from society for so long, and I’m having conversations with men in Ireland now that I could never have dreamed of having (before the pandemic),” Breslin said. “I’ve never felt more human and more connected to our very core humanity.”

Ways to cope

What can men do now if they are struggling? In addition to reaching out to your medical professional for support, the National Institute for Mental Health recommends a few other ways to tackle negative feelings.

• Exercise regularly. Regular exercise can help people with mild to moderate depression and may be one part of a treatment plan for those with severe depression

• Seek extracurricular activities/hobbies but don’t overcommit. While it’s healthy to take on activities, it’s important to break up large tasks into small ones. Don’t try to do too many things at once.

• Build a strong daily routine. Break your day into segments. For example, getting up and going to bed at the same time each day is an effective way to regulate sleep and improve your mental health.

How to get help if you are having suicidal thoughts: In the US, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The International Association for Suicide Prevention and Befrienders Worldwide also provide contact information for crisis centers around the world.