Man up? Never

There are some phrases or sayings that people just churn out when they don’t know what else to say.

Often this is something harmless about the weather that they might chirpily say to the postman or newsagent: “Nippy outside, isn’t it?” or “Lovely day.” In football, there are mundane cliches that players, managers and pundits trot out when they have to say something but haven’t had time to think about what that something might be: “He’s come in and done a job” or “At the end of the day it’s all about getting three points.”

People can take the same approach as those tongue-tied football experts when confronted with an awkward situation or inconvenient truth. Say, for example, a relative or friend reveals they are struggling with depression. Unless you’ve experienced depression for yourself, it’s hard to know what to say, because you don’t know what that person is thinking or how they’re feeling. So, out come those reliable old gap-fillers: “Chin up,” “cheer up, you’ve got lots to be happy about,” “pull yourself together,” “stiff upper lip” and all that.

I have nothing against such well-meaning attempts at helping someone to feel better. They’re often said with a kind heart and good intentions. OK, so they’re rather thoughtless and not exactly helpful, because cheering up is one of those things you would probably tend to do if you were blessed with the capacity to do so at that particular time. Even somebody who isn’t suffering from depression but is having a bad day might not react favourably to such merry, faux motivational small talk. Your well-meaning adviser is simply failing to understand and diagnose what is wrong, and is using their limited or non-existent knowledge of it to give you a slightly feeble and misguided pep talk.

There is a similar phrase I’ve heard a few times recently (not directed at me) that is not only unhelpful but is also ignorant and, to be blunt about it, stupid. That phrase is ‘man up’.

I am a man. I have the parts to prove it, should the need arise – so to speak. No amount of ‘manning up’, in any circumstances, is going to alter my manliness. It has remained at a constant level throughout my adult life. Before I was a man, I was a boy. Nobody tells you to ‘boy up’, though, so we can forget about that.

I have heard two men recently saying that they were going to ‘man up’. They meant they were going to try and toughen up. If that means they’re going to face their problems head on and get the help they need to get better, then fine. The alternative meaning, though, is that they’re going to do that ‘strong, silent type’ thing that’s meant to personify the rugged, heroic, masculine, chisel-jawed breadwinner, who ‘just gets on with it’. My problem with that is that ‘just getting on with it’ is what frequently seems to cause depression. There is only so much ‘just getting on with it’ a person can do before it starts to take its toll on their health. For ‘just get on with it’, read ‘just get stressed out, just fail to express your feelings, just take on too much, just get mentally ill as a result’.

Worse, though, is when someone else tells you to ‘man up’. I saw this on Twitter recently, in response to a well-known sportsman openly tweeting about depression. The tweet helpfully advised him to “man the f*** up”. In reply, he simply and brilliantly retweeted this moronic insult so that all his followers could see it.

This use of ‘man up’ was deliberately hostile and provocative and clearly wasn’t the well-considered product of an ingenious mind, but the ignorance riled me nonetheless. It’s based on the presumption that someone going through depression is just having a prolonged sulk, and can suddenly jolt themselves out of it when they receive a timely piece of unexpected guidance. It’s also grounded in a ridiculous misconception of what a man should be.

The reality of depression is that it is not merely a bad mood that you can snap out of, however manly you may be. It’s an illness. As I was mulling over – and probably scowling about – the idea of ‘manning up’, I caught side of the inhaler by my bed, and it occurred to me that there are some parallels between depression and asthma:

  • both are medical problems
  • both have varying degrees of severity
  • both can be triggered by a range of factors
  • many cases of both can be managed with the right treatment
  • both can be killers

If I were ever to have a severe asthma attack, I hope it would not even pop into someone’s head that they could suggest I ‘man up’, because that would not help me to get my breathing under control and prevent serious harm. It is equally daft, useless and dangerous to aim a ‘man up’ at someone fighting depression. What possible good could that phrase do? It is about as much use as a PE teacher telling you that you ‘need more confidence’ when you’re not doing very well at a particular sport. “Ah yes,” thinks the teenage boy, “you are right. Glad you pointed that out. I will locate my ‘confidence’ switch and that will solve all my problems’.” If you don’t have confidence, how exactly are you going to find more just because someone has suggested it?

‘Man up’ could have been a phrase that encouraged men to face their troubles in a healthy way – it could have been about admitting to a problem and asking for help. Instead, it is a sub-cavemanesque grunt of ground-breaking stupidity that enforces meathead sterotypes of masculinity. Gentlemen – it’s time we gave it the boot.

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