I recently went on holiday to Israel, exploring the historic and more modern sites of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It was an eventful trip, not least because of the various encounters with Israeli security which raised some eyebrows (I do tend to get stopped quite often, woe is me) or the questionable accommodation we stayed in. Nonetheless, it was good fun. Part of the reason for this was because I was travelling with David, an old pal from university. Back in the UK we hardly meet due to geography and our unsocial working hours. Most of our conversation is done via high quality WhatsApp correspondence, and trolling each other’s controversial views on various topics. However, when we can meet, it provides a good opportunity to chat. To have those shallow conversations, and to have deep conversations. To talk about life, and to talk (sometimes) about death.
During one evening we delved into the differences between males and females, an interesting (or dangerous) topic in our modern age. Don’t ask how we ended up at this point, but we eventually landed on suicide. David’s a doctor, so shared some interesting insights which confirmed trends I had heard about, but still surprised me.
Suicide is the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45, and last year there were 17.2 suicides per 100,000 males. A marked gender split remains: for UK women, the rate is a third of men’s: 5.4 suicides per 100,000. It’s the same in many other countries. Compared to women, men are three times more likely to die by suicide in Australia, 3.5 times more likely in the US and more than four times more likely in Russia and Argentina. Nearly 40% of countries have more than 15 suicide deaths per 100,000 men; only 1.5% show a rate that high for women. This has been the case since records began, and is despite the fact that women have higher rates of depression diagnoses, and also that women are more likely to attempt suicide.
The reasons for this are far from straightforward, and it’s maybe too easy to jump on generalisations we’ve heard before: women are open and willing to share their problems, while men are more closed and are less in touch with their emotions.
But have we considered that men are maybe quite lonely?
Almost one in five men admits to having no friends, with a third claiming to not have a best friend. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to make their friends from school, the community or even through informal conversations in cafes. Men on the whole will make most of their social connections through their work, and so as sickness or retirement approaches, loneliness ensues.
And the irony is that some of us don’t even know it. In our modern social media age we are interacting with other individuals, but we are not necessarily connected. Our relationships are many in number, but are almost always quite superficial, with any depth to them halted due to our schedules and plans. Externally we are busy and overwhelmed, but deep down we are alone. It then tends to be the case that even people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, who are ‘surrounded’ by individuals, will still find themselves to be incredibly lonely. And it means that men particularly feel the brunt of this — isolating themselves to the extent that when things get tough the support networks that should be there aren’t, with fatal consequences.
Some may suggest that the solution is to develop stronger networks, or put more crudely, for men to try and make more friends. However, a range of factors actually mean that is easier said than done.
Many men do not confront the very obvious fact of their loneliness — the weird influence of certain forms of macho masculinity means admitting that you don’t have anyone close to you is basically a sign that you’re not particularly likeable, and you are problematic — quite bruising to the ego.
Other men may have no problem (jokingly) acknowledging their isolation, but will also tend to be ‘too busy to initiate new friendships and too lazy to maintain old ones.’ The family used to be the last ditch network most people could fall on, and to a certain extent still is. However the modern pace of life, people moving away from home, or dysfunctional family setups, means this is now becoming a vanishing alternative.
It’s no surprise then that people are increasingly finding solace within religious communities, which often provide a ‘safe space’ to process life’s dilemmas and tough questions. An impressive 87% of churches provide organised and informal activities for those in their community, and particularly in large cities, become incredibly attractive to large swathes of people who are isolated in fast, fluid environments.
It’s also no coincidence that it is churches more so than other religious institutions that are at the forefront of this. The Christian God has a unique relationship to the lonely because, unlike other religious deities, this God suffered, was forsaken, and was left alone by those closest to him to die.
Although we are seeing a loneliness epidemic at the moment, and with loneliness worryingly prevalent in men, it is nothing new. Thousands of years ago David, the king of Israel, describes God as ‘father to the fatherless’ and a ‘protector of widows’.
It’s this reason millions of people who would otherwise be isolated find their home in the church, not simply as a psychological crutch to lean on, but as a reality of being known and loved by God and his people. It’s a beautiful picture, not being part of a glorified social club, but to be ‘no longer strangers or aliens, but…fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God’.
Claiming that church will solve all the problems of men today is a stretch. It won’t. But as a lonely man living in 21st century Britain, walking into your local church this weekend might be the best thing you could do.