The Power of Connection: Men's Health Initiatives Highlight the Importance of Social Bonds
Exploring the ways social connection enriches men’s lives was a topic viewed from many angles this week as part of the Men’s Health Connected May series, timed to celebrate Mates Day on May 8.
The series started with a look at five powerful men’s health initiatives that are bringing men together in different settings and on Wednesday, May 10, covered on-going research into the relationship between social connection and health from social scientist Adam Karg.
Make no mistake, began Associate Professor Karg from Swinburne University’s Sport Innovation Research Group. “Social connection is good for our health. Lack of social connection is not.”
His research investigates infrastructure that helps deliver, create and maintain connection, asking ‘what are the optimal conditions and interventions by which connection is created or maximised and how can connection be measured?’
“Infrastructure is anything that brings people together,” he said. It’s the libraries we visit, cafes, commercial spaces, communal gardens, neighbourhood houses, leisure centres, sports clubs. Connection is the by-product of the primary activity.
“How can we best design them so that connection can happen in a rich way?
“We can measure relationships, frequency of interactions, feelings of support, feelings of belonging, community integration and activities.”
Sean Martin from Ten to Men talked about social life events (SLEs) that had the greatest impact on those tracked by the Australian Institute of Family Studies longitudinal nationwide study of boys and men.
The most significant event for younger males was leaving home and for older men, it was family conflict.
“Older men remain vulnerable to social disconnection,” he said. For all populations of men, “improving community-participation can buffer SLE-induced decrease in social connection.”
A moving experience
Men’s Talk Au founder Paul Litwin, spoke of a simple but effective ‘breath and connect’ program launched by his Scarborough-based organisation in January 2022. The fortnightly meet-up on the Perth beach has attracted upwards of 100 men learning how to breathe from their guts.
“Motion is lotion,” stated Paul. “Just being able to breathe correctly can help our well-being.” The free sessions led by facilitator Cam Watkins conclude with a dip in the Indian Ocean and a warm coffee afterwards. “A lot of men are coming because they don’t feel they have a community to connect with.”
Mark Burns, who accidentally started a national men’s walking movement at the coastal NSW town Kiama in 2018 after he changed his routine from late nights watching Netflix to early mornings walking the streets with a growing band of mates, said “loneliness is our lane.”
The Man Walk is not a suicide prevention group, but it is a men’s mental health group offering social connection as an antidote to isolation.
“I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done,” said a participant from one of the 84 man walk groups around Australia. “I feel like I’m part of something.”
Mark, who has since left his full-time job as a physio to man The Man Walk full-time, said a key ingredient to the success of his enterprise was having passionate ‘Manbassadors’ leading the groups, someone who “is committed to being there every week, goes the next step, reaches out to access the wider community.”
Older men and social connection
This was something of great relevance and interest to speakers representing ‘older men’ on the third day of the Men’s Health Connected series, organisations providing crucial support for some of the most vulnerable men.
Frank Cowell’s Shed Happens Mackay differentiated itself from Men’s Sheds in that the focus was “working on hearts not projects.” Attendees met once a month and took part in other events and discussions with guest speakers on topics relevant to a broad range of ages, such as pornography, domestic violence and relationships. Success, said Frank, was about being genuinely interested in the lives of these men. “You’ve gotta be connected regularly,” he said. “You’ve gotta retire to something, not from something.
Rebecca Talbot, regional health coordinator at Men’s Sheds WA spoke about placing a wellbeing and health officer into each of the 180 sheds in WA. Called ‘Noticers’, their role was to listen carefully and check up on shedders who stopped turning up, or who appeared to be tuning out of the group.
Another imaginative health promotion was ‘Prescribe a Men’s Shed’ targeted at GPs, psychologists and rehab providers, to literally encourage attendance at a men’s shed as an antidote to social isolation and loneliness.
In Toowoomba, QLD, TOMNET is supporting men 50 plus find purpose and meaning in retirement. “We do lots of things in groups,” said leader Anthony Hegarty. “Aged care visits, phone support, community events, a barbecue service … we are showing that older men still have something to offer even when they are retired.” Intergenerational programs included day care centre visits with 2–4-year-olds, assisting senior students with English skills, mentoring of year 11 and 12 students, supervised reading with primary school kids and a multicultural reading program.
“They have a reason to get out of bed, they are making a difference in the world,” said Anthony.
Check out TOMNET’S RETIRED BLOKES BOOK
The Circle of Men in Redlands, Qld, comprises 40-50 volunteer men aged between 50 and 92. They also visit nursing homes offering companionship to elderly men, who otherwise see no one. Organiser Kevin James noted that, proportionately, the highest rate of suicide completion is in men aged over 85. Aged care is dominated by women, who on average live six years longer than men. The 10% of males in aged care tend to be more incapacitated, or wheelchair bound, said Kevin.
“We try to engage the men in conversation,” he said. “We sit in a circle and we encourage each man to say his piece. How long have you been here? How are you feeling today, what’s happening today? We’ll draw upon whatever is bubbling up and try to end on a positive note. We end with some singing, men love singing.”
CALD men, military/veterans facing challenges of social connection
Thursday’s final sessions turned to two priority populations of men for whom social connection remains a challenge.
Social workers, refugees and counsellors contributed to a heartfelt discussion on the stigma attached to providing connections between Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) males. “We are seen as a threat. We are never seen as part of the community,” said one participant.
“Not knowing English as well as someone else, you are seen as not smart. If you don’t speak like me, you don’t talk like me, you’re a threat. You will be lonely.
“We’re very resilient. Much of the discrimination happens because of culture. We have to assimilate by dropping our culture.
We are never able to take our culture with us, that is why we don’t seek support sometimes, because respectfully, services are not run by CALD people.
Ex-military and veterans spoke of the disconnection experienced with family and friends after being discharged. “If we have no role, that can be really challenging for a man’s sense of identity,” said one man.
And from another: “We miss the intensity of those relationships (in the military). We live, work and play hard. When you leave that, you’re going back to the state you enlisted in, you don’t have the same relationships with family and city friends. What you are looking for is something to replace those intense friendships.”
“War is a brutalising business,” said Steve Turnbull, who leads online meetups for veterans impacted by time in service, Mates4Mates. “It requires people to be brutal. Brutality is not something society tolerates. How do you reframe?”
Drawing on the strengths of being in the military, one ex-soldier said he had learned how to meditate and, quoting the 700-verse Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita had discovered how to lean into his internal battle. “Mindfully, slowly, carefully, caringly. You can change the brain; you can get out of those ruts.”
Shared experience was a huge strength to draw upon when designing social connection programs, added Steve. “You can connect veterans decades apart by starting conversations about hardship. Veterans have a way of connecting quickly through those touchpoints that cuts through the crap.”
The social connection and men’s health series concludes on May 16 with a session on ‘Turning Action into Policy,’ led by Australian Men’s Health Forum CEO Glen Poole. This session will discuss what Government can do at policy level to create frameworks that support social connection for men and boys.