When Sam Eklls used to go to bed, he admits he could see ‘no reason’ in getting up the next day.
He wouldn’t want to get out from under the sheets. He didn’t want to move, or drink, or eat.
That’s because, despite being in his early twenties, Sam had no friends. His daily existence, he recalls, felt ‘meaningless and debilitating’.
Looking back to that time, Sam tells Metro.co.uk that life without friendship ‘is horrible’.
The 25-year-old adds: ‘You live with depression and anxiety and it’s really draining on your mental and physical health.’
Once Sam left school at 16, it effectively cut him off from the people he’d grown up with.
His school friends continued their education while he had ‘nothing to do in the day’ and struggled to maintain contact in the evenings when his former mates became immersed in revision. Eventually, those friendships simply fell away.
When Sam, who lives in London, started work he didn’t manage to make friends there – or anywhere else. For years he says he felt isolated and lonely, tormented by social media pictures and footage of people he’d known from school continuing to enjoy social lives.
He recalls swiping through Instagram stories at work during one sweltering summer afternoon: ‘all my old friends were having fun at a swimming pool, while I was stuck in my office.’
‘It was one of the toughest periods of my life,’ Sam admits. ‘You feel like you’re just swimming in the ocean, like there’s nothing around you and there’s no way out.’
Thankfully he did find a way out, after joining a local football team.
‘I was doing something that I loved to do, and other people loved to do, and met people that way,’ he explains.
Sam’s also recently found another set of connections through his Twitch streaming, which has given him access to a new ‘online community’.
A survey by the Movember Foundation found that one in four UK men are in contact with friends less than once a month, and one in ten can’t remember the last time they interacted with mates.
However, this trend towards isolation has serious consequences, warns the charity. Loneliness wrecks mental health – leading to depression and anxiety – and at its worst it’s a killer, with men three times more likely than women to take their own lives.
Simon Gunning, CEO of the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), says that ‘loneliness is the biggest reason’ why people use his charity’s helpline and that men in particular now seem to lack friends more than ever before.
He tells Metro.co.uk that the problem today is that men don’t often tend to curate valuable friendships, instead forming inadequate relationships not built to last.
‘At worst they’re quite damaging, where we’re comparing how we’ve done materially, how we look, how we perform,’ he explains, adding that these competitive friendships have become more common under the influence of ranting online male ‘gurus’ (or ‘f***ing idiots,’ as Simon calls them).
‘The vast bulk of male friendships are just a bit lightweight,’ he continues, comparing them unfavourably with ‘the more tangibly rich friendships my wife and daughter have’.
It’s a point echoed by the Movember survey, which found that over half of all men lack friends they can discuss ‘serious’ topics with.
Although male friendships often develop from relationships at work, when unemployment strikes – whether due to redundancy or retirement – it can be a huge blow.
Not only do they lose access to workspaces where friendships are maintained and developed, but the loss of income can also mean many can’t afford to socialise at pubs, sports matches and other (relatively) expensive venues.
However, even when men are in stable employment, as large parts of the workforce continue to operate completely remotely following the restrictions brought on by the coronavirus crisis, it has left some totally isolated and friendless.
This was the experience of graduate Sam Reedy, from Lancashire.
According to him, there weren’t many university students more sociable than he. Chatty and chirpy – ‘bubbly’, in his own words – and with ‘a big circle of friends at Uni’, when he made his first forays into the world of work, he relished the prospect of new friends and adventures.
During one placement scheme, he even ‘won awards for being the person most likely to show up at socials,’ he remembers.
Following his graduation in July 2021, Sam moved to Manchester and joined a very small start-up. It was then that his social life shrivelled up dramatically.
There were just four other people working at Sam’s company, and he was working in a flat that was largely empty, as his housemates spent long and unsociable hours at their jobs. He didn’t have other friends in the city.
Sam was shocked. ‘You get so used to seeing people every day and that’s something I’ve always thrived on’, explains the 23-year-old. ‘It was just me and whoever was on the other side of the screen. All I had was my work.’
During the week, Sam was occupied with his job, which distracted him from his loneliness. But as the weekend edged nearer, he began to panic.
There was no one to see, nothing to do. He’d go into central Manchester to buy lunch and then wander around aimlessly. The flat – so often empty, silent, and ‘scary’ – was an unattractive setting to return to.
In the past Sam had ‘looked forward to the end of the week’; now ‘with no prospect of seeing anyone, it was a low point’.
This cycle lasted for about a year and a half, and Sam hated it, saying that life without friends ‘doesn’t feel natural.’
To break his pattern of isolation, he began to research social groups for young people in his situation, ‘who either work from home, or want to meet other young professional people in the area’.
In November 2021, Sam discovered Manchester Young Professionals, an events and networking organisation that hosted ‘fitness clubs, breakfast clubs, dinners and other things’, helping to build a network of new friends around the city.
Since then has been going to the group’s events regularly, and now can say that life as a young graduate is much closer to what he expected. ‘Some of the people I’ve met I’m going to stay friends with for a very long time,’ says Sam.
While his experience reveals the damaging consequences of post-Covid working practices, the loneliness lockdown brought isn’t something that just affected young professionals.
It cut off men of all ages, and particularly the vulnerable older generation.
Across the country, charities and community projects have been fighting the legacy of this isolation. Men’s Matters, a Yorkshire-based group run by Aireborough Voluntary Services to the Elderly, is one such initiative.
The group’s founder, Perry Mercer, explains how they bring together men who are ‘particularly isolated’ in a pub once a fortnight.
During the pandemic the group would congregate ‘on a windy moor top’, where they drank tea from disposable cups.
Discussions deal with a wide range of topics: from deep personal memories and traumatic losses – many of the men who attend are bereaved – to chat about sport, holidays, and politics (the group jokingly plan to form a government to replace ‘this current lot’).
James Booth, 88, first joined the group after being visited by Stacey, a local community leader. He had friends – one of them had asked Stacey to visit him – but his motivation for leaving home and socialising had disappeared after his wife, Barbara, had passed away.
‘I used to sit in a chair all day and I didn’t go anywhere or do anything,’ James admits.
Stacey warned him that if he didn’t become reintegrated with the community, it could lead to severe depression and isolation, so James decided to join Men’s Matters, and found himself surrounded by new friends. He has since become an eloquent and passionate advocate for the club.
One of his new friends is 87-year-old Bryan Moss, who has been going to the meetings for the last three years.
A former plumber and salesman, Bryan tells Metro.co.uk he was always a sports obsessive: ‘Football, cricket, rugby, golf’ – first as a player and then as a coach, with a set of friends that seemed to grow and grow.
Though Bryan eventually got too old to participate and ‘missed joining in greatly’, the friendships he’d formed continued through phone calls and meet-ups.
However, sadly, as the years have gone by he has lost many of his friends – including his wife, Marjorie, who Bryan says was his ‘best friend’ and gave him 65 ‘perfect’ years of marriage.
‘There wasn’t a day I didn’t love her, and there wasn’t a day she didn’t love me’, he recalls.
After his wife died, Bryan says he ‘simply didn’t want to know anything about what was happening around me… I was trapped in a grief-stricken black hole.’
Without close friends to turn to, he admits he felt ‘stuck in rut and couldn’t get out of it – I honestly didn’t know how.’
Then his daughter discovered the group – which has since changed his life.
‘I was in a dark place, and Men’s Matters brought me into the light,’ he explains.
Bryan soon became friends with all his fellow members, gathering with them at the pub to set the world to rights.
And these new friendships don’t end when the Men’s Matters sessions do, with members keeping close tabs on each other’s health and wellbeing. When Bryan injured himself, he was shocked by ‘the number of people that called me, and continue to.’
While there’s no doubt that male loneliness is a major problem across generations and around the UK, stories like Bryan’s show that whatever your age or situation, it is possible to make new friends.
CALM’s Simon Gunning recommends finding groups based ‘around shared passion points’ – in other words, common hobbies or interests.
For him, that means meeting up with his beloved band, or his friends who share his fascination with motorbikes. When Simon gets together with these mates they’re ‘not really talking about motorbikes’ – their shared interests are ‘facilitators for allowing us to be close with each other’.
For Sam Elks and Bryan Moss, sport has been the perfect ‘shared passion point’ through which they’ve gained and maintained valuable friendships.
Meanwhile, Sam Reedy stresses how important it is that lonely men don’t lose hope and think they’ll be alone forever: ‘You have to have faith that there will be people you’ll have common ground with, and you can use Reddit, Discord, and even Twitter to find them.’
Often, it just takes a moment of confidence for men to break the curse of loneliness – the moment of chatting to a stranger, joining a sports team, or contacting a charity.
No one should feel alone, says Simon, help is always available.
After all, as James from Men’s Matters points out: ‘There’s nothing worse than sitting in the house all the time. Let’s face it, you can’t talk to the wallpaper all day.’
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