Mental health is a topic of conversation that is particularly hard to tackle due to a variety of stigmas associated with it, all of which vary depending on culture, age (sometimes it may not be “just a phase”) and gender. Opinions are however quickly changing, allowing blogs such as this one to explore some issues without fearing a wave of unsubscriptions (fingers crossed).
I spoke last week about the loneliness epidemic (epidemic arguably being a bit of an hyperbole) affecting teenagers and young adults, and made it sound like technology was almost fully to blame. That is of course not entirely the case: friendship in adulthood is a challenge for a lot of people. On average, we start to lose friends around age 25 (damn it), and continue to lose them steadily for the rest of our lives. As adults, we tend to work more, commit to more serious romantic relationships, and start families, all of which end up taking priority over “drinking-with-friends-at-the-bar” time.
Furthermore, young adults move around more than any other demographic ever has, which severs support networks (friends, family, mentors…). People are also changing jobs more than ever, which interrupts connections that in previous eras would have become decades long. Furthermore, freelancing, which is quickly becoming the new normal, deprives workers of not only job security, but social stability.
And no, more tech in not the answer : “online social contacts with friends and family,” as one study put it, “were not an effective alternative for offline social interactions in reducing feelings of loneliness” (looking at you, New York Times). Tech is indeed very much part of the problem, especially social media: thanks to Instagram and Facebook, people are suffering and dying under the torture of the fantasy self they’re failing to become.
Social media may however be a decent outlet to share one’s feeling when anonymity is granted: all of the images in today’s edition are lifted from the highest-ranked submissions on the subreddit r/2meirl4meirl, a place to exchange depression-themed memes. You either get it or you don’t, but those images show the head-space many young adults are in right now, and sharing in an anonymous way is highly cathartic.
The Health Issue
As if feeling lonely wasn’t bad enough, loneliness and isolation are shockingly bad for your health and wellbeing. Rigorous epidemiological studies have linked loneliness and social isolation to:
- A weakened immune system
- A higher blood pressure
- A messed up sleep cycle
- An increased risk of heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- A higher suicide rate
For the sake of intellectual honesty, do note that any study looking at all the above is very likely to run into multicollinearity issues (I never thought I’d ever get to use that word outside of my master thesis…).
According to the former United States surgeon general, who authored a widely cited meta-analysis, loneliness and social isolation are “associated with a reduction in life span similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.”
These health issues have gotten worrying enough to warrant the appointment of a Minister of Loneliness in the U.K. Yet, the country’s decision to leave the European Union has already had consequences that, it’s fair to hazard, will increase the anguish of lonely Britons. Hey Britain, wanna feel less lonely? Stay in Europe. We’re your friends.
The Gender Issue
Loneliness and social isolation affects men far more than women, for what appears to be obvious reason, which I here over-simplify: we share our feelings less, with less people, because emotional sharing is not in accordance with a gender identity created centuries ago. And though I cannot stress enough the fact that women still face an abundance of obstacles, they go into the world increasingly well equipped to emotionally take them on: to be a woman today is to be the beneficiary of decades of conversation about the complexities of womanhood, its many forms and expressions.
No commensurate movement has emerged to help men navigate toward a full expression of their gender (the closest thing I could find was the ManKind project, which involves dancing and crying, naked, in a British forest…). In a world where the historical staples of masculinity (strength, aggression and competitiveness) are no longer relevant, many find themselves trapped, and don’t even have the language to talk about how they feel about it, because the language that exists to discuss the full range of human emotion is still viewed as sensitive and feminine. We don’t know how to be, and we’re terrified. And so the man who feels lost but wishes to preserve his fully masculine self has only two choices: withdrawal or rage, often with deadly effect.
Outmoded, incorrect and misplaced male self-beliefs are proving lethal and the traditional strong, silent response to adversity is increasingly failing to protect men from themselves. As usual, I offer no solutions, but a thought instead: fathers should hug their sons more and speak more openly about their feelings. Thoughts?
In a society where mental disturbance is endlessly pathologised, it’s easy to conclude that the pinnacle of mental health is the absence of illness. This idea leads us to envy those who steer clear of the ‘disease’ label. But a broader, more Jungian conception of mental health — one that encompasses the entire human meaning-making process — includes emotional setbacks, even profound ones, viewing them as invitations to engage in the ongoing project of destroying and rebuilding the self. If any of the issues described above do not describe you, remember that if you sail over the same waves that fell others, by all means, celebrate your good fortune. But it’s no guarantee that the race will be yours.
Feeling lonely? Drop me a line. We’ll chat. It’ll be nice.