Vietnamese men battle loneliness and emotional isolation

By Quynh Nguyen   June 8, 2024 | 08:13 pm PT
When Van Huy faces work or personal challenges, he often resorts to drinking heavily to numb his feelings and escape his troubles instead of sharing with others.

A 32-year-old from the Thanh Xuan District in Hanoi, Huy acknowledges that drinking doesn’t resolve his issues. It only provides a temporary escape from reality. After sobering up from a hangover, he does his best to put his concerns aside and stabilize his wavering emotions before resuming his routine.

In the early days of his career, he shared his problems openly with his parents. But over time, generational differences and divergent views on life transformed these discussions into disputes.

He hesitates to confide in friends as well, fearing it might lead to a loss of respect and expose his secrets. Another thing that bars him from sharing his difficulties with his peers is a feeling of inferiority he suffers every time someone he knows shares about their achievements or assets.

Sharing his feelings with his girlfriend has also proved difficult, because he worries that revealing his vulnerability could diminish his masculinity, and result in her feeling less attracted to him.

"I always want to share my burdens, to find someone who will listen, but scared of being judged," Huy said. "I feel like a lone wolf moving forward."

Huy during a trip to Northwestern Vietnam in early 2024. Photo courtesy of Huy

Huy during a trip to Northwestern Vietnam in early 2024. Photo courtesy of Huy

Dr. Tran Thi Hong Thu, Vice Director of the Hanoi-based Mai Huong Day Care Psychiatric Hospital, identifies Huy as a typical example of male loneliness. Common symptoms he exhibits include losing connections with friends and family, enduring persistent sadness and depression, suffering from fatigue, and having a desire to speak about his inner world without the ability to find anyone empathetic to confide in.

"Loneliness affects everyone, but it is particularly challenging for men due to societal expectations to remain strong and masculine," she explained. "Their reluctance to reveal their vulnerabilities leads to self-isolation."

The 2020 study "Men and Masculinities in a Globalizing Viet Nam" by the Institute for Social Development Studies (ISDS) corroborates Dr. Thu’s observations. Among nearly 3,000 individuals aged 18-64 across various locations in Vietnam–including Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Khanh Hoa, and Hoa Binh–surveyed, nearly 18% of urban men feel lonely and disconnected, compared to over 13% in rural areas.

This increase in male loneliness seems to reflect a global trend.

According to the Survey Center on American Life at the American Enterprise Institute, in 1990, 55% of American men reported having at least six close friends. By 2021, this figure had dropped to 27%. Moreover, 15% of men reported having no close friends at all, while the rate among women was 10%.

Duc Duy, a 40-year-old from the northern province of Hai Duong, was laid off from his job in early 2024. He kept this secret from everyone, including his wife and children. Pretending to still be employed, he spent his days at local cafes searching for new job opportunities, all to spare his family from worry.

From a young age, Duy was taught that a man must be the family’s backbone, always strong and self-sufficient, never showing weakness. This belief discouraged him from sharing his personal struggles from his young age, and it intensified after he married and had children. He only shared his achievements with his wife, never his failures, to avoid burdening her.

Meanwhile, his efforts to confide in friends were unsuccessful as they were either too busy, lived far away, or were merely acquaintances who might mock his failures.

"I must appear strong even when I am not, and my fear and anxiety must be hidden," he said. "Even when I need to cry, I wait until my wife and kids are away, or I find a secluded spot. because that is what a man should do."

Cultural expert Nguyen Anh Hong, a former lecturer at the Academy of Journalism and Communication, points out the increasing sense of isolation among Vietnamese men is a result of several factors, including the stereotype of men as the "backbones" of the family, which discourages them from expressing their true emotions because this could be viewed as a sign of weakness.

Secondly, according to Hong, societal pressures to compete and excel professionally pit men against each other instead of fostering mutual support.

Thirdly, a generational divide also prevents them from connecting with younger family members.

And finally, as women increasingly join the workforce and shift their focus from purely family-oriented roles, they have less time to tend to the emotional needs of men.

"These factors inadvertently weaken interpersonal relationships, leaving men feeling isolated within their own homes," Hong cautioned. "This can detrimentally affect their physical and mental health over time."

Research from the American Journal of Psychology shows that loneliness and isolation heighten the risk of heart diseases, dementia, strokes, depression, anxiety, and early death among men. Also, the higher suicide rates among men compared to women can also be attributed to their unexpressed inner conflicts.

Dr. Thu notes that societal norms that deem emotional expression a predominantly female trait compel men to suppress their inherent sensitivities. They are reluctant to seek help and avoid consulting doctors.

Mai Huong Day Care Psychiatric Hospital seldom sees male patients for psychological consultations due to prevailing stigmas around the issue. Those who do seek help often already suffer from depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders, which necessitate medical intervention and, if not addressed, can lead to serious consequences.

For Huy, feeling misunderstood and unsupported exacerbates his issues with friends, colleagues, and family members. Once a vibrant and dynamic young man, he now succumbs to negative thoughts and constant lethargy, often relying on sedatives or alcohol to sleep. His physical health is declining as he suffers from stomach problems, and his job performance is faltering. He’s already been reprimanded by supervisors more than once for lack of focus.

For Duy, years of suppressing his emotions have made him irritable, often leading to conflicts with his wife and children over minor issues. His lack of connection with his family fuels a sense of detachment, and he is now reluctant to show affection to his beloved. The discord with his wife has also led him to consider divorce once the children are older several times.

"I am shouldering the burden of being the pillar of the family, but no one tries to understand me, or what I think or need," Duy said. "No one even asks how I’m doing."

To prevent worse-case scenarios, Dr. Thu encourages men to open up, share their thoughts and feelings with friends and family, and break away from gender stereotypes.

For those who find face-to-face communication difficult, Le Anh Tu, a lecturer in Public Relations and Communications at Van Lang University in Ho Chi Minh City, recommends joining social media groups and sharing anonymously.

A VnExpress survey found dozens of online groups where men share their secrets and discuss hobbies. The largest group has nearly 170,000 members, with about 10 new posts daily, mostly about work, relationships, and family life.

"However, everyone should balance their time on social media with real-life interactions," Tu advised. "The virtual space is merely a stepping stone to learning how to share, but individuals must ultimately break out of their shells and step out."

If all efforts fail, interest in activities declines, or negative thoughts persist, Dr. Thu advises seeking professional help from reputable medical facilities for counseling and support.

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