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Male Survivors: why are we told to "man up" our mental health?

Updated: Sep 7, 2021

According to the Mental Health Foundation, men are less likely to seek help for mental health; only 36% of referrals to therapy in the NHS are for men. Men also have less access to a social support network from friends, family, and their community. Labelled by researchers as a “silent endemic”, the culture of silence surrounding men’s mental health is a common barrier to men seeking help. Many men feel the pressure of living up to hypermasculine norms that emphasise self-reliance, stoicism and anti-femininity. Consequently, men become less likely to acknowledge their mental health or seek professional help.


A review in The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry confirm there is a close link between men who rigidly follow masculine norms and men who suffer from mental health issues. Phrases like “man up”, “take it like a man”, “boys don’t cry” further contribute to this problem by devaluing men’s emotions as a weakness. Language like this needs to be redefined in the context of men’s mental health.


Good examples of this can be seen in campaigns like Man Up that prove the narratives surrounding these words can be changed. The mental health charity CALM and their campaign Grow a Pair deployed a similar strategy. By reframing what these words mean, these traditional ideas about masculinity can be given new meaning that supports the movement of men’s mental health.


Of course, sometimes we do have to be tough and strong – I’m not saying men should not value those traits. What I’m saying is that there needs to be a healthy balance between expressing your emotions and regulating them. Being strong and masculine should not be mutually exclusive with being open with your mental struggles.


Furthermore, a significant part of moving the conversation of men’s mental health forward is the need for male role models. A study from Leeds Beckett University suggests that men can be encouraged to seek help for their mental health issues if they see other men endorsing the same values.


These days you see a lot of male public figures ranging from Prince William to Dr Alex from Love Island becoming advocates of mental health. Any public figure who openly talks about their mental health helps destigmatise the subject. However, we have to remember that the most important advocates for mental health have to be ourselves.


Leading by example is a crucial part of destigmatising mental health for men. This means being present when your friend or family member is struggling. Instead of telling men or boys to “man up”, validate their feelings by listening to them considerately. The charity HeadsUpGuys have some amazing resources to help approach these kinds of conversations.

Evidently, the influence of these kinds of conversations do work as men are now three times more likely to see a therapist compared to 10 years ago. There is still a big gender disparity here but the gap is slowly closing.


I remember a few years ago a friend told me the manliest thing you can do is to be open about your mental health. Talking about your problems and seeking help should not be seen as a weakness; it should be a practical step to solve your mental health problems the same way you would with your physical health. The changes we’re starting to see is promising but there’s still a lot more work to be done.


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