American men had been struggling for some time when, three years ago this month, the COVID-19 pandemic began in earnest in the U.S. In the years immediately following, nationwide “deaths of despair”—defined as deaths from drug overdoses, suicide, or alcohol—increased, particularly among men. Researchers have been shedding more and more light on a problem that has only worsened in the shadows, where it has been largely overlooked by policymakers, and reaching many of the same conclusions about the contributing factors.
In the aggregate, men’s problems are myriad. One frequently cited statistic states that men are four times more likely to die by suicide than women. According to data from the CDC, drug overdose deaths increased around 30% between 2019 and 2020, to a total of 91,799; the National Institutes of Health data showed that more than 70% of the drug opioid overdose deaths in 2021 were among men. At the beginning of 2022, over 11% of men between the ages of 25 and 54 were neither working nor looking for work, a number that has been increasing since the latter half of the 20th century.
Together, two largely male communities in New York’s Hudson Valley have centuries of experience helping men face challenges. In Garrison, New York, atop what they call “the Holy Mountain,” the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement run St. Christopher’s Inn, a men’s addiction treatment facility dedicated to helping residents find their purpose. In 2021, an annus horribilis for drug opioid overdose deaths in the U.S., St. Christopher’s boasted a day treatment program completion rate of nearly 60% for the previous three years. (For comparison, SAMHSA annual data available for 2019 and 2020 shows completion rates of 32% and 34%, respectively, for all substance abuse outpatient programs, including day treatment, in New York state.) Just across the river is the United States Military Academy at West Point, with a corps of cadets sworn to uphold duty, honor, and country.
If the diagnoses are correct, and epochal social and economic change are what ails the 21st-century man, St. Christopher’s and West Point—bolstered by purpose, routine, and accountability—may suggest an antidote.
Originally, St. Christopher’s Inn was a chicken coop.
In 1898, a group of Episcopalian religious sisters and friars arrived on the hill that would become known as Graymoor, to care for an abandoned chapel. Seventeen of the sisters and friars from this group, the Society of the Atonement, joined the Catholic Church in 1909. In 1910, they converted their chicken coop into a place for homeless men to stay, a developing ministry for the friars, whose community was located along the Appalachian Trail. Homeless men traveling along what is today Route 9 would frequently come to Graymoor looking for something to eat and a place to stay.
On their website, the Friars’ vision statement insists the “Atonement” in their community’s name should be read as “At-one-ment,” a unity they aim to bring “to a fragmented world through gospel love, mercy and healing.” Friars differ from monks, who are cloistered away from society. (Christian monasticism exists in both Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism, beginning in North Africa and the Middle East, and dating back to Christianity’s early centuries. Friars, whose name is an Anglicization of frère, the French word for brother, arrived in Europe later, around the 12th century; they are predominantly Catholic, although Lutheran and Anglican denominations also have Franciscan religious orders.) Under the leadership of their founder, Father Paul Wattson, the Friars of the Atonement organized their own community under a “rule of life” written by 13th-century ascetic Francisco Bernardone (better known as Saint Francis)—the subject of Franco Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and a popular fixture in garden statuary.
In the context of religious life, a rule of life refers to a formalized program of living. Australian Catholic monk Michael Casey writes in his book Strangers to the City that religious life such as that lived by friars, monks, and nuns “asks us to take on a new identity and to be reshaped according to a different culture,” and the rule of a religious order is designed to help its members through “a progressive and substantial change in attitude” so as to “facilitate a distinctive lifestyle, based on distinctive premises and priorities.” The Friars’ rule is fleshed out in a simple 14-page document, and is centered around vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity; their work is focused on “cultivating a spirit of prayer, of poverty, and of humility.”
On the U.S. home page for the Franciscans, the religious order founded by Francis, the FAQ explains: “All Franciscan friars are first and foremost brothers to each other. All Franciscan friars live the same rule of life and wear the same religious habit.”
At St. Christopher’s Inn, the residents are asked to live, according to their website, “like the Friars did for so many years” (three Friars now live among the men in recovery, in their own wing). There are some differences: The residents wear their own clothes, instead of a religious habit, and they aren’t required to attend Mass, although they are required to join in a daily end-of-day meditation modeled on the 11th step of Alcoholics Anonymous.
But like the Franciscans themselves, the residents are first and foremost brothers to each other. In fact, from the earliest days of the inn to today, the Friars referred to residents as “Brothers Christopher.” The name Christopher means “Christ-bearer,” and calling the men this serves as a reminder of Christ’s message to his followers in the book of Matthew Chapter 25, that in ministering to the hungry and thirsty, the sick, the marginalized, the naked, and the prisoner, they are ministering to him.
Resident life is patterned on the life of the Friars: The men live in dormitory-style accommodations, and they “are asked to perform an assigned activity, to help with upkeep and maintenance,” such as preparing and serving meals for each other, working in admissions to welcome newcomers, or assisting on the grounds.
St. Christopher’s Inn has gone through a few iterations since 1910 (at one point, an army barracks was used). A New York Office of Addiction Services and Supports-licensed facility, which provides 24/7 residential treatment, and the site of a Medicare/Medicaid-eligible medical clinic, it little resembles its humble beginnings.
The friars realized many of the homeless men coming to them had deeper issues, often with alcohol. They began hosting regular Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in 1960 (among the first places in the country to do so, according to the Graymoor website). St. Christopher’s became an alcohol rehabilitation site in 1967, and expanded to drug addiction treatment in the 1970s, as more of the men coming to them struggled with substance abuse.
According to Outreach and Intake Manager Joanna Ross, who works in the Admissions Office, men come to St. Christopher’s to be treated for dependencies on alcohol, crack cocaine, meth, and other drugs, but the big change in recent years is the rise of opioids. “It wasn’t like it is now,” she said, describing the clientele shift to opioids since she began working there in 2005. “And then heroin. Because what happens is, they can’t afford pills anymore, and then they go to heroin. It’s cheaper. And now the heroin is laced with fentanyl.”
Almost a year ago, St. Christopher’s expanded from a 90-day to a yearlong residential program, a transition that is still underway. Prior to COVID, St. Christopher’s was always at capacity, treating typically about 185 men, she said, and descending to a population hovering around the 30s after the pandemic hit. Although Ross said their numbers are “slowly creeping back up,” the change in status to a yearlong program means their dormitory-style living facilities’ capacity is now reduced to 142.
Director of Nursing and Admission Services William Weeks, a family nurse practitioner and himself a former Friar, said the number of men coming to St. Christopher’s Inn who are “much more seriously not well” with depression, anxiety, and PTSD has increased in the past decade. “I think the whole COVID situation kind of exacerbated people’s issues,” said James G. Schiller, executive director at St. Christopher’s, and also a former Friar (old habits die hard—when we first entered Weeks’ office, Schiller greeted him as “Brother Bill”).
Ross said she has seen an increase in men with mental health issues since 2005. “But maybe more so after COVID,” she said, “because people got more depressed, they were home, so that’s really what we struggle with, because we do have pretty strict criteria for mental health.”
Although men can be admitted with anxiety, bipolar disorder, and depression, recent suicide attempts, schizophrenia, and psychosis are all disqualifying. Anyone requiring medically managed detox in an inpatient hospital setting must have completed it prior to coming to St. Christopher’s. The men must also be medically and psychiatrically stable, with any urgent issues addressed before they begin recovery treatment. They must also be 18 or older, and although they span all ages, Ross said there are a lot of residents in their 20s.
St. Christopher’s residents can self-admit, but the admissions office also fields requests from families, inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation facilities, and detox clinics. “We’ve been around for over 100 years,” Ross said. “In the recovery community, most people know about us.” To get to Graymoor, she said, family members drive the men, they take the train from the city (St. Christopher’s picks them up at the Metro North station in Garrison, as well as any men living within about a half-hour of the inn), or they arrive via Medicaid cabs from other rehab facilities.
Ross said along with Medicaid and Medicare, St. Christopher’s accepts other private insurance, although she notes that the men are less likely to have this since few of them are working. Those with out-of-network insurance are sometimes able to work out a plan with their carrier and St. Christopher’s, and, their website says, “a limited number of scholarships are available for clients who have demonstrated a commitment to the work of recovery but have run out of resources to continue their treatment.”
A cross-partisan consensus is emerging that echoes Weeks’ and Schiller’s observations of the men at St. Christopher’s.
Men face a risk about three times higher than women for dying a death of despair. That’s according to Richard Reeves, Brookings Institute economic studies chair, who last year published Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It.
The same year Reeves published Of Boys and Men, American Enterprise Institute political economist Nicholas Eberstadt wrote a post-pandemic edition of his 2016 study Men Without Work, about the declining work rate among American men. In it, he refers to “the New Misery,” a cluster of pathologies among men of prime working age (which he defines as between 25 and 54 years old), who are not in the labor force, and are neither working nor looking for work.
In the updated 2022 edition of Men Without Work, Eberstadt contends that the COVID-19 pandemic did not create but exacerbated the New Misery. He writes that the decline of working prime-age men began in the post-WWII era. Their number has gone down by 18 percentage points since 1950, he says, driven almost entirely by men ceasing to look for jobs. And although COVID-19 was a worldwide phenomenon, he writes, “no Western European country reported as low a prime-age male labor force participation rate as America” (Eberstadt makes an exception for Italy, which he says presents issues with data collection).
In both books, Eberstadt and Reeves share a mystification at what they see as a lack of interest among policymakers in the puzzling state of the American male. Eberstadt speaks of “a largely invisible crisis,” attributable in part to an outdated focus on unemployment, rather than joblessness, which ignores those who are neither working nor looking for work. Eberstadt writes that a widened aperture would reveal a rate of prime-age males who are neither working nor looking for work of around 11% (about 7 million men). This rate, he says, is on par with “the tail end of the Great Depression.”
“Men have lost ground,” Reeves writes of the American male, even as women have “shot past” them at school, and increasingly, at work. He cites some data: Boys are less likely than girls to graduate high school on time. Three out of 10 women now out-earn their husbands (twice as many as in the early 1980s), which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, except that in the U.S., he says, “boys raised poor are less likely than girls to be in paid work at the age of 30.”
Reeves sees this new paradigm as the result of cultural shifts and economic challenges.
Take parenthood. Motherhood has expanded in recent decades to include both the domestic sphere and breadwinning, but fatherhood has not similarly adapted to the times. He writes that the American model of father-as-provider, and mother-as-dependent, has transformed in recent decades, while “culture and policy are stuck on an obsolete model of fatherhood, lagging way behind economic reality,” leaving men in limbo, alienated from what society views as their traditional breadwinner role, but reluctant to take on culturally unfamiliar ones, like caregiving.
But a backward glance at historical American norms seems to reveal that the quietly vanishing male breadwinner is not necessarily taking time-honored binary gender roles with him.
In her 1992 book The Way We Never Were, professor of history and family studies Stephanie Coontz describes the traditional American nuclear family—father, mother, children living in a single-family dwelling, on a single income—as an anomaly in the grand sweep of history. Coontz says this paradigm was a uniquely post-WWII phenomenon, made possible by government policies that both shaped and reinforced the gender roles of the nuclear family archetype. The 1950s twin ideals of the pioneering Ingalls family, toughing it out in their little house on the prairie, and the breadwinning suburban pater familias, she argues, existed in the American psyche thanks to some significant, often unacknowledged assists from the federal government: in Pa Ingalls’ case, land grants and the Homestead Act; for Ward Cleaver, the GI bill, VA home loans, the Federal Housing Authority, and the national highway system.
She details the informal networks and community cooperation that undergirded life for both rich and poor for most of America’s early history—if the “rugged individual” had ever existed, he stood on quite a few shoulders.
Writing in the early 1990s, Coontz anticipates Of Boys and Men, outlining the way postwar economic and societal changes slowly enervated the roles of breadwinning male and domestic female. In her view, these zombie archetypes led to America’s Bowling Alone-style individual isolation.
In Coontz’s theory, the Industrial Revolution first decoupled work from home, accelerating an emerging compartmentalization of the domestic from the public. The domestic sphere was female, sentimental, and emotional. The public arena was male: individualistic, rational, and competitive, the product of Enlightenment and Romantic individualism and Darwinist liberal capitalism. There, no one was owed anything.
The Way We Never Were is at pains to illustrate how government intervention, public policy, and cultural mores in the 19th century became centered around preserving the model of the standalone, wage-earning male breadwinner, with a dependent wife and children. But “for thousands of years, any family that needed to work understood that everyone in that family needed to work,” Coontz wrote in Time magazine, more recently, in 2013. “There was no such term as ‘male breadwinner.’ Throughout the colonial America era, wives were called ‘yokemates’ or ‘deputy husbands.’”
Home became the acceptable realm for the private self, and the nuclear family of the Victorian middle class became the ideal and the aspiration, Coontz wrote in her book. Marriage became more than a societal expectation, and was pitched as the pinnacle of personal fulfillment. The culture celebrated the beatific stay-at-home wife and mother who had abundant time and energy to devote to her family’s flourishing. Conveniently overlooked were the child, immigrant, and minority exploitation that often made it all possible, and only then for a select few. Reeves reminds readers that the 20th-century patriarchy did not always serve men particularly well (see: Loman, Willy).
Per Coontz, this nuclear family idyll made Americans’ world small, truncating our “sense of larger social obligations and commitments.” So if the perfect American family was out of reach, as it was for many, or if it failed to totally affirm or fulfill you, as it inevitably would, where was there left to go?
For some men, the answer is to detach from family and its attendant obligations—and to attach to alcohol and drugs. In a video testimonial on St. Christopher’s website, a father in recovery recalls using drugs and getting drunk in the bathroom at a Little League game. For others, substance abuse offered an escape from an unhappy family life. Another Brother Christopher in recovery, Todd, recalls in his testimonial the death of his father at age 9. Afterward, he said, “I was rebellious. I didn’t want to go to school, I didn’t want to do anything.” He said he began using drugs at around the age of 12 or 13. “I had a very low self-esteem. No self-worth.”
What Reeves calls “male malaise” isn’t restricted to a particular class or race (even if some are particularly affected—deaths of despair are disproportionately among white working-class men, and the Obama Foundation’s MBK initiative says that Black males born 25 years ago have only a 1 in 2 chance of being employed today). Kevin Douglas, director of counseling and sheltering at St. Christopher’s, said they see attorneys, police detectives, teachers, and professors come through their doors.
Male malaise also predates COVID.
Of Boys and Men references a 2018 piece in Harper’s by Barrett Swanson, titled “Men at Work.” It is an account of attending Evryman, a three-day secular men’s retreat, alongside finance guys, Special Forces veterans, and scientists. Swanson describes “a derby of self-expression”: brutally honest personal testimonials, a primal scream “anger ceremony” in the woods, an intense holotropic breathing session. His melancholy conclusion imagines his fellow attendees returning at the retreat’s end to the “private loneliness” of the real world.
Swanson paints a vivid picture of a single neighbor, who he surmised worked in big tech, in his 30s. He recalls overhearing the man’s weekly solo ritual of playing videogames through the weekend, and “the sadness I experienced listening to him holed up for days on end in front of a screen, blasting Elder Dragons or whatever.”
Like Reeves and Coontz, Swanson looks to early America, where he says men were evaluated less by their “chest-thumping machismo,” than their value to the community around them. “Creditors were neighbors and kinsmen were clients,” Swanson quotes historian E. Anthony Rotundo. “A man’s failure at work was never a private concern.” Even before the era of COVID alienation, Swanson was suggesting that the men flocking to CrossFit gyms, Evryman, the Proud Boys, and Jordan Peterson lectures were indicating a keenly felt absence of ready-made community and ways of being for men.
Swanson sees a type of gender essentialism in the tendency to blame undesirable male behavior on “toxic masculinity.” It ignores the structural reasons men may be struggling with certain behaviors like substance abuse—the mirror image of male chauvinists ascribing emotional irrationality to women. In Of Boys and Men, Reeves sees a parallel between contemporary masculinity and the circumstances of mid-20th-century women. To wit, Coontz describes in The Way We Never Were the fractured self of the midcentury American housewife, unmoored by twin pressures—virtually unprecedented—to be both a singly devoted mother, and the sole source of sexual and emotional fulfillment for her spouse. In reaction to these ahistorical expectations, she writes that tranquilizer use (“developed in the 1950s in response to a need that physicians explicitly saw as female”) and drinking among women during this time, increased dramatically.
Saying that conversations with the men in his social circle had begun to resemble “unofficial therapy sessions,” Swanson writes: “Several of these men struggled with addiction and depression, or other conditions that could be named, but the more common complaint was something vaguer—a quiet desperation that, if I were forced to generalize, seemed to stem from a gnawing sense of purposelessness.”
How similar this life of aimless unease, “Elder Dragons or whatever,” and substances sounds to what Coontz describes as “the four B’s” of the reality of the 1950s housewife: “booze, bowling, bridge, and boredom.”
“I’m 73 and I have a purpose,” said Bob Conboy, after proudly showing me around San Damiano Farm, a small, self-sustaining farm that has been operative at St. Christopher’s Inn since 2017, according to their website. Conboy, who was turning compost on a tractor when we met, oversees operations at San Damiano. It is impressive, with a drip irrigation system and a hoop house (a type of greenhouse popular in organic farming) built by the residents. The structure, Conboy said, enables them to grow heirloom tomatoes in December. Even on a gray February day, the promise of the beauty of the Hudson Valley’s full flourishing can be glimpsed. The men were already growing flowers for Mother’s Day.
In the warmer months, San Damiano hosts a farmers market, and Conboy and Schilling spoke familiarly to each other about some regulars of their shared acquaintance. Schilling said Graymoor enjoys local name recognition. A Cold Spring, New York, farm-to-table restaurant boasts a “Graymoor Salad” made with produce grown and tended by Conboy and the residents (thanks to a knifing-specialty training available through St. Christopher’s vocational readiness service, upon leaving, Schilling said residents can “get hired in a minute” at restaurants in nearby Peekskill, New York).
Working on the farm is part of residents’ transition once they leave the more intensive treatment at St. Christopher’s Inn. Residents work part of the day at the farm, spending the other part focusing on recovery and attending meetings.
I spoke with a resident at San Damiano who was working the greenhouse. He said he liked the ability to “bring life from nothing.” And he is excited to bring his newly acquired horticultural skills back to his family’s landscaping business. He told me he had just gotten off the phone with his mom. “Things have changed,” he said he told her. Now, he said, there’s “a new game plan.”
He told me he is looking forward to giving back once he leaves. “My recovery has been so great,” he said.
Both Schiller and Weeks tout St. Christopher’s alumni services, a proud network of graduated Brothers Christopher in recovery. “Hundreds of alumni return every year” to the annual Homecoming picnic the Graymoor site says, “to celebrate their recovery with the Friars and staff who helped them on their journey.”
Maintaining that kind of network is remarkable. Although the bulk of their clientele come from New York City, according to Weeks, others come from around the tri-state area, and the ratios of ethnicities and age varies from season to season.
“After care is a big issue,” said Weeks. I ask whether the kind of post-departure reach-back services St. Christopher’s offers their alumni are typical.
“Probably not,” he said.
For up to three months after they leave, he said, recovering Brothers Christopher can access assistance to get the resources they need to coordinate with insurance companies, arrange transportation, or even return to St. Christopher’s for appointments and help filling prescriptions if they face lengthy wait times at home.
Schiller, who worked with addicted people in the Bronx for 30 years, said after treatment at other places, it is much more common for people to simply “disappear.” But working at Graymoor, as he has for almost the past three years, is different. “Here,” he said, “I run into people all the time.”
This kind of community connection is becoming increasingly rare, particularly for men. “Social circles have been shrinking for men and women, especially since the pandemic,” Daniel De Visé wrote in a recent article for The Hill, reporting on Pew research indicating that young men today are single at twice the rate of young women.
“But men struggle more,” De Visé writes. “Thirty years ago, 55% of men reported having six or more close friends. By 2021, that share had slipped to 27%.”
In a play on the feminist slogan, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” Reeves asks in Of Boys and Men, “What is a bicycle for in a world of fish?” The previous pattern for men of job, marriage, then children has become less paradigmatic in the last 50 years, just as women have become more active in the workplace. The culture, Reeves believes, has failed to produce a new model for men that reflects new cultural realities. Womanhood has adapted; the term “working mother,” he points out, already sounds antiquated.
Reeves cites a 2019 study, “Tenuous Attachments of Working Class Men,” in his book. It concluded that with little on the horizon to take the place of three institutions: work, the nuclear family, and organized religion, working-class men faced an environment of anomie, or normlessness. Anomie is a term popularized by 19th-century French sociologist Emile Durkheim, to which he attributed rising suicide rates in his time. When schools, businesses, houses of worship, and parks closed a year after the study was published, what norms were left disappeared.
St. Christopher’s is very normative: Signs for choir practice, every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 9 p.m. are ubiquitous. There is even a regimented process for serving lunch, with the men quietly queueing up at the appointed time.
The inn’s president and spiritual director, Father Dennis Polanco, a man with a gentle demeanor followed around by a little dog named Joey, takes me to the chapel where he says Mass on Sundays and a few days a week (attendance is optional for the men). There, he said, every afternoon at 4:45, all the men come for a rough approximation of what in religious communities would be called Vespers, the evening recitation of the Psalms. However, these Brothers Christopher of various (or no) faiths gather to meditate on the 11th step of Alcoholics Anonymous: “prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God.”
Together, the men reflect on their day following a prescribed order of service referred to as evening meditation. They begin with the Serenity Prayer, followed by a reading from the AA “24 Hour Book” of daily recovery readings and meditations, and an opportunity to bring forward intentions. After a time of silence, the men recite the 11th step. Evening meditation concludes with the prayer of St. Francis, author of the Friars’ rule. By pure coincidence, this prayer is part of AA’s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, known by members simply as the “twelve and twelve.”
It is a plea for purpose and transformation: “Make me an instrument of your peace,” the prayer’s opening line reads.
For these men, who have often lost their jobs, Director of Counseling Kevin Douglas said that they leave St. Christopher’s with a renewed sense of purpose (that word comes up a lot), “ready to try again.”
If the Friars’ system of everyone living together, rule-following, and regimented schedules sounds a little militaristic, in some cases, the parallels may be intentional.
Father Matt Pawlikowski is the Catholic chaplain for the Corps of Cadets across the Hudson at West Point. An academy graduate himself, he served as an officer before going to seminary to become a Catholic priest, eventually becoming an army chaplain.
At seminary, he noticed a lot of similarities to West Point. “There’s too many similarities for this to just be coincidence,” Pawlikowski said, remembering his thinking at the time.
But it was more than the early wakeups, uniform clerical outfits, strict schedules, menial tasks, and austere common living. “The seminary has a formation program,” he said. “And so does West Point. So West Point educates, but it also forms.” Where instruction at West Point is oriented toward instilling duty and honor into cadets, he said, “the seminary would have slightly different formation, but still, there’s a formation. You’re trying to form the soul, the character of the person.”
After some inquiries, he discovered a possible reason: “[West Point founder] Sylvanus Thayer visited the Grand Seminary of the Sulpicians when he was looking for textbooks,” he said. While in France in the early 1800s, looking for mathematical and engineering textbooks, Thayer encountered this society of priests, founded in 17th-century France, dedicated to the formation of both seminarians and ordained priests. According to other priests Pawlikowski asked, Thayer adapted the Sulpicians’ formation program.
Pawlikowski said he once mentioned this connection to a member of the Sulpicians. “He said, ‘Of course there is, everybody knows that.’ I said, ‘Everybody does not know that.’ He says, ‘Every Sulpician knows it.”
As it turns out, Pawlikowski’s acquaintance wasn’t quite accurate.
Father Ronald Witherup, who recently stepped down from his post as superior general of the worldwide community of Sulpicians after 14 years, was unfamiliar with the supposed West Point-Sulpician connection. He said it was plausible, though.
Thayer “probably saw in the Sulpician model a pretty well-oiled, functioning machine that would serve well for some place like West Point,” Witherup said. “The idea of the combination of discipline, obedience, structure.” Instead of army bugles, the rhythm of the day was structured by bells, he said: wake up, pray, meditation, Mass, meals, and recreation. Just as the purpose of West Point is to prepare cadets for service (the school’s motto is “Duty, Honor, Country”), for seminarians, the Sulpician idea is to train missionary disciples for evangelization.
And just as your brother Franciscans notice if you’re missing at Vespers, and your Brothers Christopher notice if you aren’t at evening meditation, upperclassmen notice if you aren’t in your barracks when they come around to make sure you’re in your room at night after the bugle plays “Taps” at 11:30.
Recently, the National Bureau of Economic Research found an increase in middle-aged mortality, not observed in other countries, that accompanied a national decline in religiosity that began in the 1980s. The researchers also found that states with the largest increases in deaths of despair were those states where religious attendance had also dropped the most. Congruently, their research showed that the decline in religiosity was often preceded by the repeal of so-called “blue laws,” which prohibit economic activity, usually on Sunday mornings. Commerce became more convenient, but norms that at their best provided accountability and facilitated a reason to get together with extended family and community, appear to have consequently eroded.
When pandemic policies forced millions into extended isolation in 2020, commerce was facilitated even further with the proliferation of no-contact shopping and near-instantaneous home delivery. Plunged further into private loneliness, many men seemed to receive the message they feared most: that no one noticed, cared—they were maybe even better off—with them out of the picture. Reeves estimates in Boys and Men that because of opioids’ distinguishing characteristics from other drugs (as painkillers, they don’t boost confidence or energy, or alter experience), they can be viewed more as a “barometer” of male economic and social underachievement, than a cause. Users who die of opioid overdoses, he points out, are usually indoors, and frequently alone.
Incidentally, American young men’s interest in dating or looking for a new relationship has declined since 2019. These days, it seems, “women don’t need to be in long-term relationships,” according to an LA psychologist quoted by De Visé in The Hill. “They don’t need to be married. They’d rather go to brunch with friends than have a horrible date.”
But researchers have noticed men’s absence, and the data showing that men in America are struggling. What is less clear is whether anyone is listening who can do anything about it. And there are reasons to believe there issomething to be done.
The combination of formation and purpose seems to be the secret sauce that has kept the Sulpicians in business since the 1600s, even inspiring long-running spinoffs like the United States Military Academy. “There’s certain keys to formation that work,” Witherup said. All that is necessary is to “adapt to the unique situation that you’re addressing.”
The principles are transferable. “Formation is formation,” he said. No matter who the object, “a lot of issues are the same.”
Richard Reeves seems to ascribe to the adaptable formation model. Boys, who mature later, should perhaps start school a year later than their female peers, he suggests in his book. He also advocates forming men for traditionally female-dominated professions, in what he calls the HEAL fields: health, education, administration, and literacy.
“Be quick to see where religious people are right,” counsels the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous. “Make use of what they offer.”
This seems to have been Sylvanus Thayer’s approach in borrowing his formation program for young American officers from some French priests. The result has persisted into the present day, adapting, as Witherup recommends, when women were admitted to the academy in the mid 1970s. Male formation does not have to be a zero-sum game at women’s expense—Pawlikowski said that at a recent parade, he counted over half of the leaders in the Corps of Cadets were women. “Which, considering that we’re 20% women, that’s a substantial number.”
The mission of St. Christopher’s is in keeping with the Friars’ mission of At-one-ment, uniting the fractured selves of the men to whom they open their doors. In addition to the medical and psychiatric interventions they provide, they also give the men something that is increasingly rare in the wider society: expectations, roles to fulfill, somewhere to be—and a reason to be there.
This story is part of a series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.