In December of 2020, Justin Brey hit rock bottom. Wrecked by drug and alcohol addiction, he felt hopeless and alone. His wife didn’t see a shared future for their family. Brey took his gun, drove his truck into the mountains and wrote a suicide note to his eldest son. “I felt like everyone in my life hated me, including myself,” Brey recently told me.

But in that moment of crushing despair, he got a text message from his brother-in-law that jolted him out of his spiraling thoughts. His kids needed him, Brey realized. He needed to live. The touchpoint between two men at just the right moment saved his life, Brey told me, and marked the beginning of a new chapter in his life.

“I was just so far gone, I was a completely different person,” said Brey, who works in digital marketing and has an air of a modern-day viking with a mustache and muscular physique adorned with tattoos. “That message saved my life.”

This story, which Brey shared on LinkedIn, struck a chord with his followers, garnering almost 300 comments. “Glad you’re still with us,” one man wrote. “I’ve been there bro, twice,” wrote another. Brey’s vulnerability, expressed in that post and others, resonated with John Moore, an entrepreneur in Utah who had been feeling a pull to advance the conversation about men’s mental health and connection. He even wrote a thesis on “the platonic art of bromance” for his master’s at Southern Utah University.

Moore, too, knew the challenges of mental health battles firsthand. He had lost three friends to suicide and has himself gone through a dark time after being laid off from a job. So he reached out to Brey. “You usually see people peacocking on LinkedIn, nobody wants to say they’re struggling,” Moore told me. The two men began brainstorming about starting a community around men’s mental health and creating a safe space where men could be open about their struggles. “We don’t talk about these issues, because they’re hard to talk about,” Moore said. “And a lot of times men don’t like to ask for help and so they just kind of suffer in silence.”

Heare Brotherhood has since grown into an online community of nearly 7,000 men, with a mission to end loneliness, normalize talking about mental health challenges, and ultimately dispel the notion that opening up about your mental health and other difficulties is at odds with masculinity. The overwhelming response to the effort revealed the need for nonjudgmental and safe spaces for men’s connection, Moore said. “It proved the point that men are alone, despite being more connected than ever before.”

Why are men struggling?

As a demographic, American men haven’t been doing great for some time. Men are nearly four times more likely to die by suicide than women. Between 2020 and 2021, data show an 8% uptick in suicides for young men of ages 15-24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One in 10 men experiences anxiety and depression, and only half will receive treatment for it. The unfolding crisis of loneliness and isolation also has impacted men more acutely than women. Nearly 15% of men under the age of 30 say they don’t have a close friend, an increase from 3% in 1990, according to 2021 data from AEI’s Center on American Life. (For women, that number is 10%.)

Amid this fracturing of the social fabric, the conversation about men’s mental health has been gaining momentum. Yet, it still bumps up against traditional concepts of masculinity and being a tough and emotionally unwavering man. “There are so many different arenas in which men have discovered that the traditional definitions of masculinity may inhibit the kinds of lives that they want to live,” said Michael Kimmel, a retired professor of sociology at Stony Brook University in New York, where he founded the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities. “Or, for example, make it impossible for them to be the kind of loving, caring and emotionally available husbands, partners, fathers and friends they want to be and that they think they are.”

Depression in particular, Kimmel said, has been traditionally coded as a women’s issue. “Depression was seen as anxiety or anger turned inward because you couldn’t express it because women can’t get angry,” Kimmel said. For men, on the other hand, anger was seen as a more acceptable, masculine emotion which would eliminate suppressed depression in men. “At the same time, men are supposed to be so stoic and never show pain and never show weakness, so no wonder many men feel like ‘I can’t live up to that,’ because actually human beings can’t live up to that.”

And it’s often the case that men just don’t know exactly what they’re feeling and when they should seek professional help. “Men tend to not seek services, because they’re not fully aware of the emotion that they’re having,” said Kevin Simon, chief behavioral health officer for the city of Boston, speaking on a panel last year at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Kimmel explained that examples of athletes like Michael Phelps, speaking out about mental health, have been a powerful catalyst in shifting that conversation.

Heare Brotherhood, which began as an apparel brand, emerged amid a rich landscape of podcasts, communities, retreats and apps designed to help men chart a path forward. There are groups like Evryman that, like Heare, foster male friendships and connection by talking about their feelings. The ManKind Project, with chapters in over 27 countries, offers men’s groups and a training program to help men become “emotionally mature, powerful, compassionate, and purpose-driven.” We Are the They, also Utah-based, holds high-adrenaline retreats for men and has a program for young men and women, too. “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be ... BE ONE,” the group’s website says.

The quest for new models of masculinity in the changing world has also resulted in the rise of figures like Jordan Peterson and Joe Rogan, and also men who come with substantial baggage, like Andrew Tate, who has been charged with human trafficking and rape in Romania, but maintains his innocence. As journalist Christine Emba put it in her Washington Post piece on the men’s crisis: “People need codes for how to be human. And when those aren’t easily found, they’ll take whatever is offered, no matter what else is attached.”

Heare Brotherhood co-founders Justin Brey, left, and John Moore, middle, talk to other men during an outing. Heare Brotherhood, a nonprofit based in Utah, is on a mission to cure loneliness. | Casey McDaniel

Away from extremes

But the Heare Brotherhood founders tell me they try to move away from the extremes often seen in media and entertainment. “These stereotypes, I feel like they don’t lend themselves to an authentic view of what real masculinity is and what it looks like,” said Mike Allen, one of the Heare Brotherhood founders and an entrepreneur based in Utah, who leads men’s retreats and started an organization with his wife, The Light in Us, which hosts retreats for men, women and couples. “There are positive aspects of those things, but that can turn unhealthy when they become idolized,” Allen said.

Heare, which the founders call a “social support app,” aims to appeal to the “silent majority” — men who are all over the spectrum of expressions of how they see their masculinity —without falling into those extremes, Brey said. “There is a sentiment around what it is to be a male in our society now,” Allen said. “And I think a lot of men are just feeling frankly a bit lost.”

The community’s name is a mix of two meanings of the word “here”— “here here,” a phrase members of the British parliament say in unison to agree with the listener, and also “here” as a connection to a specific place. “The idea is that we’re here to show support and opportunities for growth,” Moore said, adding that the group’s emergence during the pandemic was especially timely, when mental health problems sprang to the forefront of everyone’s mind. “The pandemic was the great equalizer in that a lot of men were very humbled and realized that this mental health stuff was real,” Moore said.

‘My brother’s keeper’

In a nutshell, the group is on a mission to cure loneliness, Brey said. Membership is comprised largely of men in their 30s and 40s, married with children, and predominantly Christian. (While the founders don’t hide their faith, religion is not part of Heare’s brand). Among the members are atheists and gay men; the community welcomes all men, the founders say.

To join the group men are invited to sign the oath, a pledge to get all participants on the same page about the shared purpose of the community: “I vow to be my brother’s keeper. A silent watchful guardian over those in darkness. A listening ear to those in pain,” the beginning reads. The cost for membership currently ranges between $1.99 and $19.99, but the community is fundraising for their latest effort, the Heare Foundation, in order to make access to the Heare network cheaper or even free for men worldwide.

The men have “mental check-ins” every day through the app. And Allen leads a 10-minute guided mindfulness practice every week to equip men with tools they can use to become “observers of their thoughts without identifying with every thought of an inner critic.”

During weekly huddles on Google Meet, men discuss a prompt: a recent one asked the group to reflect on something they’re proud of and something they’re ashamed of. “It’s the same principle — if I realize that I’m not alone and I’m not rejected because of the thing I feel shame over, that is so powerful and healing,” Allen said. The group also hosts retreats, hikes and cold plunges. The next cold plunge is slated to take place on March 30 at 8 a.m. MT at Mount Timpanogos Park in Provo Canyon.

The anonymous section on the app has been the most popular with men, Brey said. There, men discuss struggles with addictions, mental health, financial pressures and feelings of loneliness, without the pressure of identifying themselves. Pornography, he said, is among the more common struggles that men talk about. “What’s even worse than viewing of pornography is the shame,” he said. “It’s crazy how much men hate themselves for doing stuff like that. And they feel like they’re so alone and they’re the only ones.”

And while the collective support may not solve the problems, having cheerleaders and a helpline at all hours can make all the difference. “It doesn’t all of a sudden make their life 100% better, but it makes them feel not alone, which for whatever reason, saves lives,” Brey said.

Groups like Heare Brotherhood may offer a model for restoring male social connections and fostering deeper male friendships. Richard Reeves, author of the book “Of Boys and Men,” suggests that economic changes and the decline of men in the labor force, colleges and religious institutions is part of a friendship recession that is contributing to the sweeping loneliness and mental health problems men are experiencing.

“We’re seeing more men who are detached from the labor market,” Reeves said in a podcast with Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general. “So I have this somewhat controversial thesis that male friendship is a little bit more fragile, a bit more constructed, takes a little bit more doing in some ways than female friendship does, perhaps because of the way we’re socialized into creating friendships,” Reeves said. “It may be that we’re seeing some of the deinstitutionalization of friendship which is particularly affecting men.”

Speaking in, speaking out

Men’s groups that foster friendships and connections are an important development in helping men, Kimmel told me. But in his view, they should be the beginning of broader efforts led by men in the world. “I completely applaud and support men who are today trying to wrestle with what they inherited in terms of the ideas of masculinity and how badly they fit,” Kimmel said. “But they need to take it one step further and keep making gender visible when it’s invisible in the public arena.”

He believes men should stand up against broader societal challenges like gun violence or inequality. “These political questions have to be addressed by men, acting as men, speaking as men, precisely because ‘I know I have the support of my brothers and my support group that I can stand here and speak out,’” he said. “It’s great that you have this support — now you need to speak out, not just speak in.”

Allen thinks about this balance of supporting men in their struggles and mental health while also being mindful of those who have been mistreated. “How do we support and encourage minority groups that have been treated as less than or have not had the same opportunities?” he said. Heare’s leaders also want to extend support to women; the group has plans to start a Heare Sisterhood.

A year after his rock-bottom moment, Brey reunited with his wife and two boys. Since then, the couple has had two more children, two little girls. Brey continues to open up about his challenges on LinkedIn. Seven months ago, he posted that he was laid off from his job, and initially felt panic, then hope. He feels a calling, he said, to “forge a global brotherhood” — “to help make sure no man is left alone in the darkness.”

A group of men with Heare Brotherhood support each other during their retreat last year at Zion Wildflower Resort near Zion’s National Park in 2023. Heare Brotherhood, a nonprofit based in Utah, is on a mission to cure loneliness. | Josh Prows