Social isolation and loneliness are now widely accepted as risk factors for depression and anxiety. Conversely, social connectedness and good interpersonal relationships are considered protective factors that have a positive impact on mental (and general) health and well-being.
There is a growing body of research in this area that indicates men aged 30 to 65 (men in their middle years) experience more loneliness and have smaller social networks than women in the same age bracket.
beyondblue commissioned this research project to:
- highlight social connectedness as a protective factor for mental health and wellbeing
- identify the barriers impacting on the social connectedness of men in their middle years
- identify the factors which would facilitate social connectedness of men in their middle years
- use the evidence from this research to inform future involvement in initiatives and strategies to help men in their middle years to connect socially.
The project adopted a multi-stage, multi-method approach, consisting of: a review of existing literature and interviews with thought leaders and practitioners; qualitative discussion groups; a quantitative online survey with 4,100 men; online discussion boards; and ethnographic case studies.
The research found that poor social connectedness is a significant issue for many men in their middle years. Key research findings are as follows:
- Nearly one in four men (equating to 1.1 million men in the total population) experience low levels of social support (as measured by the Duke Social Support Index) and may be at-risk of isolation.
- More than one in three men (37 per cent) are not satisfied with the quality of their relationships, typically because they do not feel emotionally connected or supported.
- 25 per cent of men have no-one outside of their immediate family they can rely on.
- Only 40 per cent of men felt they were part of a community. Men who feel part of a community are more likely to have stronger social support.
- Social connectedness/support levels do appear to decline in men’s middle years – support levels between the ages of 35 and 54 were significantly lower than the younger (18-34) and older (55-65) ends of the population sample.
- Lack of social connectedness is not seen as an important social issue by men, nor is the link to other social issues, such as suicide or violence, readily recognised or understood. Men experiencing isolation or loneliness often feel like they are the only one.
Factors for disconnection and dissatisfaction
- A range of factors contribute to men’s feelings of disconnection including underlying pre-dispositions (e.g. people always struggled to connect/make friends) and situational triggers. Key situational triggers are:
o losing friendships that were based on shared interests (e.g. sports) when the participation ceased
o losing contact with friends over time and as lifestyles diverge
o changes to personal circumstances (injury, illness, employment status, family status) impacting men’s ability to maintain relationships.
- Barriers to making new connections (or re-connecting) include psychological/behavioral barriers (lack of motivation, fear of rejection) and structural barriers (finance, disability or lack of time)
- Communication/emotional openness between fathers and sons could be a factor influencing men’s connections in later life – men who reported poor communication with their fathers were more likely to have low social support.
- Many men would like to be more open with their friends and to be able to talk about personal problems, but admit they don’t always have the skills or tools to do so, or to respond if a friend opens up to them.
Links with mental health
- The relationship between social support and K10 scores was found to be significant, as was the relationship between resilience and K10 scores.