Is it damaging to men's mental health to be told to 'man up?'

Jeremy Hunt has been criticised for telling Boris Johnson to 'man up' [Photo: Getty]
Jeremy Hunt has been criticised for telling Boris Johnson to 'man up' [Photo: Getty]

Jeremy Hunt has told Boris Johnson to “man up” and stop avoiding a live TV debate with him.

In a bid to increase pressure on his rival, the foreign secretary urged Johnson to face-him in a live political debate.

"Don't be a coward Boris, man up and show the nation you can cope with the intense scrutiny the most difficult job in the country will involve," Hunt said in an article with The Times.

While many will no-doubt applaud’s Hunt’s call to action, others took to Twitter to call out the MP’s use of the controversial term.

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However you feel about Boris and his politics, telling someone to ‘man-up’ offers a disappointing indication that we still have a long way to go in terms of breaking down fixed gender stereotypes when it comes to mental health.

Whether it’s when they’re suffering physical pain, or they’re struggling with a difficult task, it’s highly likely that a large majority of men have been told to ‘man up’ at some point in their life.

But while many will have brushed off the term as being pretty innocuous, in fact the gesture draws connotations with hyper-masculinity which can actually be pretty detrimental to a man’s mental health.

“The belief that men need to be brave, tough or strong is deeply ingrained in our society, explains human behavioural expert Daryll Scott.

“Young men will invariably develop strategies to comply to social norms and often become proficient at detaching from their emotions. We all need a bit of mind-over-matter sometimes, but if we make a habit of emotional suppression, we become de-sensitised to our 'somatic markers' - the valuable, unconscious intelligence provided by our emotional responses.

“As a human being, if you are not aware of your emotional reactions you are not playing with a full deck.”

Telling someone to ‘man up’ doesn’t just impact men personally and emotionally, it can also blur the understanding of masculinity and manhood as concepts.

‘Man’, itself draws connotations to power and strength, and this could therefore cause men to feel inadequate if they don’t live up to society’s expectations of them.

For example, if a man was to seek help for a mental health issue, or express emotional vulnerability, they may risk appearing unmasculine.

“Just man up is usually used in the context of a man or boy showing vulnerability of some sort,” says Psychotherapist Noel McDermott ( “It encourages that man or boy to view vulnerability as a problem, as something to get rid of.”

Could telling a man to 'man up' impact their mental health? [Photo: Getty]
Could telling a man to 'man up' impact their mental health? [Photo: Getty]

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That’s a sentiment echoed by Dr Earim Chaudry, Medical Director, Manual, a men’s health and wellbeing platform.

“For too long, we have let society dictate how we presume men should think. Out-dated views such as, 'real men don't cry' are incredibly damaging and destructive to men's mental health.

Emotion isn’t gendered

“Emotion is not gendered,” he continues. “It's a organic reaction to a person's surroundings and feelings, not ever a sign of weakness. If we continue to circulate such ideas, the already worrying issue of men's mental health will reach crisis levels.

“The prevalence of mental health illness in men is huge, around 1 in 8 of the male UK population are suffering,” Dr Chaudry continues.

“However this only accounts for those who are diagnosed, and so the numbers are much higher when reflecting those that haven't reached out and suffer in silence.”

And this culture of silence could be perpetuated by phrases like ‘man-up’.

“From a young age, boys are taught to be 'brave' and 'man up'. This therefore leads to fear of opening up and talking about emotions,” he continues.

“The issue with men not speaking out or to one another, means emotions are bottled and tend to build up until it is too late. The isolation triggers negative thoughts, distress and anxiety and if left untreated, this can escalate into significant mental health problems and suicidal tendencies.”

The statistics back this up, with the shocking facts that men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women and suicide is the biggest cause of death in men under 50.

But is there ever an argument for using the term?

“The problem with expressions like "man up" or "pull yourself together" is that context and nuance play a huge role in them,” explains Dave Cottrell, Mindset by Dave,

“I wouldn't say these phrases are NEVER appropriate, but they certainly aren't something you want to say to anyone with which you don't have that kind of relationship. Therefore the use of them in headlines, news stories or even social media posts from someone with whom you don't have a friendly relationship will almost certainly be triggering,” he adds.

Cottrell says context is key.

“Guys and especially the ones that see them selves as more ‘blokey blokes’ can have these banter driven conversations and in certain situations the phrase "man-up" will actually be the little bump that the person needs.

“But HOW it is said, the context of the conversation and the relationship you have with the person all play a role in this,” he continues.

“Also a key thing would be the depth of the person's troubles. These phrases can be very reductionist and almost undermine the depth and complexity of more serious conditions.”

Is it damaging to tell a man to 'man up'? [Photo: Getty]
Is it damaging to tell a man to 'man up'? [Photo: Getty]

If we’re not sure about the correct context for the term to be used, Cottrell says it is far better to give the phrase a wide berth.

“Regardless of whether this type of phrase is appropriate, it will often not be the most useful thing to say,” he explains.

“Instead try saying ‘that sounds rough, would you like to talk about it’ and then just listen. If we're using phrases like ‘man up’ because we don't know what to say to another guy then we actually don't necessarily need to say anything, Sometimes we just need to give the other guy the space to be heard.”

It isn’t the first time someone in the public eye has been told to ‘man-up’. Last year Ant McPartlin was told that he needs to ‘man up’ by Carl Fogarty in an interview which heavily criticised the television presenter’s decision to return to rehab.

Fogarty told the Daily Star that he doesn’t think the 42-year-old should seek professional help.

He told the tabloid: “Grow up, sort yourself out and take responsibility. Don’t go running off to rehab every five minutes when something goes wrong. He got into a car [drunk], don’t do it, it’s not right.”

The 54-year-old added, “You don’t need to go to rehab to be told to sort that out. He needs telling straight, he needs to sort himself out and man up.”

The comments once again prompted Twitter users to head online to express their disappointment at the use of the outdated term.