The latest report from the Ten to Men longitudinal study on male health has affirmed the importance of social connectedness to optimal health, wellbeing and longevity.
Limited social connectedness – which the report says is more common among Australian males than females – is associated with a variety of poorer mental and physical outcomes and risk behaviours, including depression, substance use, sleep problems and cardiovascular disease.
Using data from the first two 'waves' of research in 2013/14 and 2015/16, the Ten to Men study sets out to describe social connectedness among adult Australian males.
It breaks the topic down to five key sub-groups:
- An overview of social connectedness among Australian Men
- The nature and prevalence of different social life events affecting adult Australian males (e.g marriage, retirement, death of a loved one)
- The bi-directional nature of depression and perceived social support among men over time
- Whether adult Australian males who experience functional difficulty are less socially connected than those without difficulty
- Participation in certain community-based activities among men, and whether community engagement affects perceived social support and enhances personal wellbeing.
A third Wave, undertaken during the second half of 2020, will examine social connectedness of males during COVID-19.
The current study found that in 2015-2016, over 90% of adult Australian males lived with at least one other person, but of the 10,729 participants 10% of those aged over 45 lived alone, compared to 3% of those aged 18-24. Close to one-third of all men had never been married.
Half of them had between 5 and 15 close friends and 72.4% said the support most commonly available to them was having someone they could count on to listen when needing to talk.
“Importantly, a significant minority of adult males experienced limited social connectedness,” the study reported.
“For example, approximately 4% had no close friends or relatives, a proportion that was fairly consistent across age groups. One-quarter of men experienced low levels of self-perceived social support, and 1%-2% were completely dissatisfied with their personal relationships.
“These findings support those of previous research showing that attachment relationships and indicators of community integration - such as being employed - can be crucial for developing and maintaining social networks and feelings of support.
“In turn, this can be beneficial for mental and physical health and wellbeing.”
The study showed there was a higher prevalence of living alone among men aged 45 and above, and lower rates of certain types of community integration, such as membership of sport or hobby clubs.
Those who conformed to traditional masculine norms of stoicism, self-reliance and avoidance of negative emotions, were less socially connected.
Social life events
The study asked participants to list how many of 15 key life events they had experienced in the 12-month period. The most common was moving house, followed by difficulty finding a job and death of a close family member.
Over one-quarter (28%) of Australian males aged 18-60 had experienced two or more such events in the past year.
“Those who have difficulty finding work, men who experience conflict with a family member during midlife, or young men leaving home for the first time had the lowest levels of perceived support, on average.
“Knowing which events are associated with low self-perceived social support is important for informing when interventions can be needed.”
Noting that one in five Australian men will experience depression at some stage of their lives, the Ten to Men study examined the bi-directional relationship between self-perceived social support and depression among Aussies males.
“On average, men with higher depressive symptoms experienced lower self-perceived social support over the same time period, and vice versa,” the study stated.
Their findings support theories that the experience of depression leads to social disconnectedness, interpersonal stress and social withdrawal, “which can exacerbate or maintain the experience of depressive symptoms, thus creating a cycle of depression and poor social support.”
Functional disability and social connectedness
Of the 2013/2014 and 2015/2016 Waves, 7-8% of adult Australian males reported serious functional difficulty across visual, auditory, mobility, cognition, self-care or communication domains.
They were more likely to have lower levels of self-perceived social support than those without difficult and disability, they had fewer close friends or relatives (8%) and unemployment rates were significantly higher, ranging from 38-67% depending on age.
Older men with functional difficulty may be particularly vulnerable to being socially disconnected.
“Research suggests that social connectedness among people with disability and difficulty can be enhanced when barriers to social inclusivity are addressed.”
The study reported that men who engaged in community-based activities had significantly greater average levels of self-perceived support compared to those who did not take part. While community service increased with age, membership of community-based sports or hobby clubs and associations decreased with age.
“Research has shown that barriers exist to volunteering for CALD communities in Australia, including English language requirements, lack of time (especially to partake in volunteering activities outside local/CALD communities), and potential exploitation and racism (Cultural & Indigenous Research Centre Australia, 2016).
Policy and practice implications
Finally, the Ten to Men study emphasised consistent findings that older men in the 18-60 aged group “appeared particularly vulnerable to being socially disconnected.”
“Providing opportunities for physical activity and other types of social engagement in accessible or incidental contexts is possibly an easily implementable policy solution to address low social connectedness among this group of men who are still of working age.”
One example of addressing this would be to introduce sports participation in workplace environments, which might also enhance social engagement among other subgroups of employed Australian males that might be less likely to take part in community-based activities, include those from CALD backgrounds.
The report highlighted the effectiveness of Men’s Sheds in fostering empowerment and a sense of belonging, a potential blueprint for maintaining social connections for a broader range of age groups.
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