Men tend to find it more difficult than women to sustain social networks. This is a simple statement about a complex issue rooted in modern masculine culture that values autonomy and emotional stoicism over friendship and community. However, if we acknowledge that it is challenging for men to develop and maintain meaningful relationships then we can start to think creatively about how to improve opportunities for lasting connection.
But why is this so important? In the simplest terms, we know that good company contributes to happier and healthier lives. From an evolutionary perspective, Charles Darwin logically concluded over 150 years ago that the reason we have thrived as a species is because of our remarkable ability to socialise, not despite it. To read and relate to the one another’s feelings is natural and genderless. Maybe it’s a case of survival of the fittest and friendliest?
Adolescent Development Researcher, Niobe Way has spent over three decades studying teenage boys’ feelings, relationships and the expectations of society upon them. She states that her findings evidence boys grow into men who ‘…are just as much in need of close same sex friendships as women.’
From a holistic perspective, we recognise that relationships with other people are vital to our overall mental health. So much so that the ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’ initiative rolled out by Public Health England back in 2008 has social connection as its primary directive. PHE outlines good relationships as the ones that help us to build a sense of belonging and self-worth, give us an opportunity to share positive experiences, and simultaneously provide us with emotional support and the energy to support others.
In their ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind’ research paper published during the first Coronavirus Pandemic lock down last Spring, the Samaritans sought to determine the components of ‘a good life’. A core group of male participants identified the people in their lives as the cornerstones alongside fulfilling work and hobbies, goals or a sense of progress and achievement, and good physical health. Conversely, this suggests that social and psychological factors contribute to poor mental health too.
During the past year, society has a seen a rise in people struggling with reactive anxiety and depression; our mental wellbeing often correlates with our environment and life experiences. The government’s Covid-19 Mental Health & Wellbeing Surveillance Report, updated weekly, shows a noticeable rise in mental distress, and a drop in overall life satisfaction. And of course, we see these general findings echoed in the people we support too who are faced with the additional effects of relationship breakdown, family separation and parental conflict against the backdrop of the pandemic.
Most of our beneficiaries come to us displaying a measurable decrease in confidence, motivation and hopes for the future. Most worryingly, just this year 17.4% of those we support have already disclosed they have experienced suicidal thoughts. Kent & Medway Suicide Prevention Strategy formulated by a multi-agency steering group now recognises our clients as part of a high-risk group, meaning they have a greater propensity toward self-harm and suicide.
Accessing psychological therapies is well established as a successful clinical intervention for those impacted by poor emotional wellbeing, common and serious mental illness. However, we know men in particular find it extraordinarily difficult to make that initial contact partly because asking for help can challenge their sense of maleness.
Research into men’s attitudes to mental health carried out by Time to Change found that, ‘…compared to women, men are less knowledgeable about mental health, with more negative attitudes; far less likely to report their own experiences of mental health problems and less likely to discuss mental health problems with a professional.’ But they need to talk to someone. So, what can we do?
What if we could put more preventative social intervention in place before clinical intervention became so necessary? Men’s Health Forum explored how to best make mental health services work for men, and found that informal, non-clinical environments with a focus on tasks often provide the opportunity for frank yet caring conversation to unfold, in part because of the balance between ‘giving’ skills and experience as well as ‘taking’ advice and support.
When looking to mitigate the impact of loneliness, isolation, uncertainty and loss of self-confidence, all arrows point to positive shared experiences and interaction being vital to improving and maintaining good mental health.
It’s not a quick fix. Meaningful relationships are fostered over time. So, we can appreciate that friendships can’t be rushed, but that often the best ways to nurture them involves learning or sharing new skills with others, working towards a common goal, or engaging in a mutual interest. Let’s magnify not minimise the by-products of these opportunities: community.
Life is busy, especially for single parents. Prioritising our own needs when we have so many other responsibilities can feel difficult, especially if the build-up of stressors has already detrimentally affected our mood, motivation and confidence. See that taking the time to regularly engage in group-based activities is a necessary investment rather than a luxury pastime. Having a tangible outcome from participating in an activity also makes it easier to justify.
Regular commitment to rewarding and enjoyable experiential learning really can have a positive impact on our lives in the round, making us more resilient and in turn, more able to provide the care and attention our loved ones deserve.
Here at Dads Unlimited, as Covid-19 restrictions begin to ease, we are looking forward to strengthening our community through the provision of more year-round activities. We know striving towards greater male uptake of services is crucial to facilitate further positive social change.
Please sign up to our mailing list to be notified of our upcoming events. We can’t wait to see everyone soon.
Enjoy the Great Outdoors and want to learn more about bush craft and survival skills? Take a look at local community interest company, The March Wood Project for an example of another local organisation offering inspiring activities that provide opportunities for lasting change and connection.
Also, we are back with ‘Pathfinders’ recommencing on Saturday 17th April where our small friendly group of separated dads will meet for coffee, then go for a scenic countryside walk up to the Wye Crown, via the Wye Farmers Market. For further details or to book, please click here.