As Mental Health Awareness Week draws to a close and the government clamps down on disability benefits, now is the perfect time to discuss Britain’s male loneliness epidemic.

When we discuss misogyny, we often forget about the other side of the coin: the problems affecting men. Evidence shows that men are more likely to suffer from social isolation and are less likely to discuss mental health issues than women, with a recent YouGov survey highlighting that one in five British men have no close friends.

A Loneliness Epidemic

’Societal norms about what it means to be a man can stop men from building relationships,’ explains Robin Hemmings, who works for the charity Campaign to End Loneliness. ‘Men think they are supposed to be independent [and] not need social support,’ he explains.

It gets worse as men get older. A study by the Movember Foundation finds that 22 per cent of men aged 55 and over never see their friends, while Age UK reveals that 550,000 men over 65 are lonely. One explanation is that most men consider their colleagues to be their friends, so when they retire, they are often left with no close companions outside their family. If their partners pass away as well, men can become completely isolated. Max Dickins, the author of Billy No-Mates: How I Realised Men Have a Friendship Problem, recently appeared on the BBC’s Woman’s Hour to discuss this worrying trend. He says that since the ’70s, men have had ‘less close friends than women.’

’If you look at bereavement, if you look at divorce, if you look at retirement, men suffer worse mental and physical health outcomes than women because of that isolation,’ concludes Dickins.

If men have no one to confide in when they are anxious or upset, it can lead to poor mental health. Almost half of all men in England don’t tell anyone about their mental health, either because they don’t want to appear overbearing or weak, or simply because they don’t have close friends with whom they can discuss personal issues. Men are more likely to suffer in silence, meaning they don’t access the resources to help them get better. This can perpetuate feelings of hopelessness and isolation, creating a vicious cycle. But initiatives across the UK are aiming to combat this. There are volunteer groups in almost every local community in the country where men can partake in various projects and make friends.

Repair Cafes

First set up in the Netherlands in 2009, Repair Cafes are held in community spaces like churches and libraries. Volunteers meet monthly to repair broken items given to them by locals, often free of charge. These items could be things like clothes, watches, appliances and electronics; anything which would have been thrown away instead of fixed. Currently, there are over 2,000 Repair Cafes globally. The exact number in the UK is less certain — figures range between 140 and 302 — but what is certain is that they have risen in popularity in recent years. As May is the month of The Big Fix campaign, which encourages Britons to repair items rather than purchase new ones, there is no better time to discuss the importance of these initiatives for both local communities and the planet.

Chris Blood volunteers at a Repair Cafe in the North West. He tells me that while Repair Cafes cater to everyone, it is often middle-aged people who benefit most from their services:

‘Typically older men … volunteer to help out — mid-forties and up,’ he says. ‘Our Repair Cafe is a social event for quite a few local residents. Some come along every month even if they don’t have anything to be repaired and chat to other people over a coffee and cake.’

The Repair Cafe isn’t just a space where people can learn how to fix things. It is ‘an opportunity for the volunteers to socialise’ with others who live nearby. Older men are unlikely to have social meetings for the sake of it, but community groups mean they can take part in a variety of activities with people in similar situations. Making friends is a positive byproduct of this, allowing them to meet new people whilst also having a purpose for being there.

‘In addition to meeting at the Repair Cafe, [volunteers] also get to find out about other local groups’ like Walking or Badminton,’ says Chris. This allows them to develop bonds with people they would otherwise have never met.  Crucially, there are also environmental benefits to volunteering at Repair Cafes, as it helps tackle overconsumption by encouraging people to repair and reuse the appliances they already own. This goes some way towards reducing CO2 emissions and preventing avoidable waste from going into landfills.

Men’s Sheds

Mark Gaisford, a middle-aged CEO of a marketing recruitment agency, discusses another nationwide initiative with a similar aim: ‘Men’s Sheds … offers more than 10,000 men the opportunity to work on a variety of projects, from woodwork to photography,’ he explains. ‘Participants can try their hand at something new amongst like-minded people.’

It was an initiative created by Mike Jenn, from London, who wanted retired men to have a dedicated space for ‘banter and camaraderie’ once they were no longer in the workplace. Since the idea was first introduced in 2011, there are now around 800 Men’s Sheds in the UK — and a few She Sheds as well. Regardless of whether men work together in teams or tinker away solitarily in the company of others, evidence shows that taking part in these projects reduces men’s anxiety and loneliness. Psychologist Dr Robin Dunbar explains how:

‘Men’s friendships … seem to be built around activities,’ he argues. Robin Hemming agrees: ‘Men often need to do something they are interested in, without realising they are developing friendships along the way.’

Ultimately, Repair Cafes and Men’s Sheds are an effective way to prevent isolation, particularly amongst older men, and create a sense of ‘togetherness’ — something that many local communities now lack.

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