Why brotherhood matters for men’s mental health

Many men in Australia report feeling lonely, but learning how to be vulnerable and forge strong brotherhood bonds can make a massive difference to men’s mental health.

After leaving school, Rory McHugh struggled with his mental health.

But he didn’t share his problems or worries with his friends or family – not even after a suicide attempt.

It took Rory years to open up to them about his mental health challenges, and only after coming to a place in his life when he realised the value of social support.

The importance of brotherhood in wellbeing

Today Rory is able to reflect on his struggles.

“When school finished, and I had to start making my own way through life and figuring out how to go about my day, I felt quite lost and confused for a long time,” Rory, now 26, says.

“I never really realised that I was on this slow slope into depression from lack of direction, lack of motivation and lack of understanding of what my purpose was as an adult, as a man, and just in general.”

Rory’s reluctance to reach out to others is reflected in the research.

The 2022 Relationship Indicators report by Relationships Australia found men were struggling to make social and emotional connections and, compared to women, were lonelier and more likely to manage relationship issues on their own.

Meanwhile, in the 2021 Ten to Men study by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, limited social connectedness was found to be more common among Australian males than females, and lower levels of social support were associated with greater depressive symptoms.

Ten to Men program lead Dr Sean Martin notes quality connections with others are important.

“It’s clear from our own data that it really is the quality of connection that’s particularly protective to overall wellbeing and mental health,” Dr Martin says.

Social connection and the male stereotype trap

Movember men’s health research global director Dr Zac Seidler says male stereotypes are likely to influence the way men understand and build their friendships, and the expectations of themselves within those friendships.

“There are really strong stereotypes that suggest men don’t need strong social connections and that they are self-reliant, and men sometimes conform to that,” Dr Seidler says.

How men usually socialise through group activities is also limiting the possibility of making deeper connections.

“I think men struggle with their social engagement and connections and opening up to others because of a socialised way of connecting built on shoulder-to-shoulder activities, but we know men are capable of far more,” Dr Seidler says.

“Many men’s relationships are not built on emotional communication or vulnerability and, as a result, the very foundation of many men’s relationships with other guys is not something that they rely on when it comes to their social and emotional wellbeing.”

Why men let social connection slide

While quantity and quality of social connections can play a protective role in mental health and wellbeing, many men let friendships slide as life takes over.

“As men get into relationships, as they have kids, many deprioritise social connection, and that is playing out in a loneliness epidemic, which is directly connected with the staggering suicide rate in our country,” Dr Seidler says.

According to the Australian government, there are more than 3000 deaths by suicide in Australia each year.

Suicide Prevention Australia notes male suicides make up three-quarters of all suicides.

Dr Martin says as men get older, they tend to lose their number of social connections.

The Ten to Men study looked at the effect of life events – such as marriage breakdown, kids moving out, or losing or changing jobs – on social connectedness in men.

“It’s those men in particular who really struggle to maintain social support or that social connection,” Dr Martin says.

The importance of being socially connected to a community is reflected in the Ten to Men research.

“Men who have higher levels of community engagement show better overall wellbeing, higher relationship satisfaction and, therefore, better mental health,” Dr Martin says.

Learning to open up to mates

For Rory, discovering a love of exercise helped improve his physical and mental health, and added structure to his days.

As his confidence grew, he began opening up to his friends.

“It was a weird, hard process and it felt awkward (at first),” Rory says.

“Even after I saw my friends open up, I still felt like I couldn’t; I definitely had a lot of false ideas of what it was to be a man and what you had to hold in.”

Rory says he learned it’s OK to not know where you are in life, and that everyone needs help.

“All these images and ideas I had of masculinity and what it is to be a man were slowly stripped apart as I learned who I was as an individual, and that I didn’t have to succumb to any sort of societal pressure,” he says.

Dr Seidler says some men feel awkward and uncomfortable having these conversations and connecting with their friends in a new way.

4 ways to build social connections

Gotcha4Life founder Gus Worland has these tips to help men stay connected to mates:

Take action

“Don’t sit back and expect things to happen,” Gus says.

“Get off your arse and have a go – join a men’s shed, start a game night, contact old school friends, talk to dads on the sidelines of kids’ sport… Even though it’s hard and will take courage, take a big breath and go for it.”

Try indirect eye contact

Eye contact is a key aspect of social interaction, but some people may struggle with it.

Gus suggests indirect eye contact to help conversation flow.

“When you’re walking or driving, you don’t have eye contact and you’ve got a few distractions, and that makes it easier for the conversation not to be awkward or weird,” Gus explains.

“Also try texting, emailing or ringing someone.”

Be vulnerable

Gus says being vulnerable is key to deeper connection.

“Be a bit vulnerable and see what happens,” he says.

Practise connecting

“It’s like getting fit – you can’t just go to the gym once; it’s going to take time and effort,” Gus says.

“The really important thing to remember is that everyone around you is thinking the same thing.

“Everyone is just keeping this desire to themselves, and so no one is getting their needs met.”

How to shift from banter to bonding

For many men, bantering with their mates can be the main way they relate.

But how do you shift from banter to bonding?

“Think about what you are currently being offered and why it is missing the mark – why are you leaving a social situation feeling worse than you did when you arrived?” Dr Seidler suggests.

“Banter and humour, although really useful in the right setting, isn’t a catch-all and can act as a defence mechanism that men have built up over time.”

Think about who is going to respond well and help you and listen to you, and whom you can help as well, Dr Seidler says.

He recommends thinking of more ways to connect beyond watching football or meeting up in a pub.

Connection doesn’t have to involve an activity – it could be a simple face-to-face catch-up, although that may feel awkward at first.

“For many men, stillness can often be confronting, because with stillness comes the necessity to engage on a new level,” Dr Seidler says.

For Rory, having friends he can talk to has transformed his life.

“My friends have shaped who I am – we all talk to each other about everything, (and) we check in all the time,” Rory says.

“We’re very much a different friendship group now, coming through all these years of learning together.

“We can all rely on each other, and I definitely wouldn’t be who I am without them, and vice versa.”

If you or someone you know needs help, phone Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the 24-hour Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.

Read more on men’s health and mental wellness:

Written by Janet Stone.