Opinion Print 2020

Self-Care: The Serpent of the Mental Health Movement

Written by Jemma Sbeg
Graphic by Chloe Davison

This piece was originally published in ‘Pleasure and Danger’, Bossy’s 2020 print edition.

In 2018, I began working for a female-aligned organisation that provides support for individuals who have been impacted by sexual assault. In this role, I began to notice a trend in how women talk about mental health. At the same time, I noticed a trend in another, seemingly unrelated, area of my life: a surge in the amount of my Instagram ads and sponsored posts that had something to do with self-care. It seemed limitless. Meditation apps, facemasks, yoga classes, gratitude journals, teas, and sometimes entire introductory courses on the almost supernatural power of self-care. As time went on, the two began to intersect in a way that initially seemed harmless but began to reveal itself as something of a silent infection within autonomous female spaces. Self-care and mental health became conjoined concepts, and their marriage is something that needs to be addressed. Although self-care does indeed allow us to focus on what nourishes our bodies and minds, and prioritises being gentle and kind to ourselves, I realised mental health could not be discussed without mention of self-care and maybe that relationship would not always be positive. Mention of anxiety would inevitably result in unsolicited advice about how exercise could be the essential antidote. A bought of insomnia conjured up suggestions of herbal teas and diffusers. The way women have been trained to talk about mental health and support their female-aligned friends, co-workers, and family has developed a problem that, in conjunction with a consumerist society, could cripple how we address mental illness within our community.

Perhaps you’ve noticed this yourself. It goes something like this:

Three months into my job, I approached my boss with an issue. The burden and intense pressure of consistent disclosures—not just when I was at work—was, naturally, wearing me down. I needed support and I knew it was likely that others did, too. The support I had in mind consisted of my workplace helping me with a mental health plan, and engaging in more discussions with us, as employees, about the stresses of this environment. I envisioned that we would have professionals come in and they would guide us through the questions and concerns we had like the weathered and wise experts they were. Two days later, we got an email. We would now be beginning every meeting and shift by telling the group what we had done for ‘self-care’ that week, or one nice thing we had done for ourselves as a ‘treat’. We went on to spend more time concerned with meditation and positive quotes than the nitty-gritty details of carrying vicarious trauma and how this intersects with mental health. If I applied a facemask once a week and bought myself something nice, the vicarious trauma associated with endless disclosures at my workplace would be a whisper in the wind as the storm of self-care promised to engulf my life and spit out something better, something cuter or Instagram-worthy.

This does not constitute a mental health plan. It glamourises a pandemic of sorts, softening the impacts of stress and trauma and making it easier to swallow; convincing people that the seriousness of their mental wellbeing can easily be sustained with a dose of expensive self-care products, baby rabbit videos, and memes. It reveals the institutional rot that is eroding the infrastructure of our mental health system. Our healthcare system is not keeping up with the increasing prevalence of poor mental health. Instead, it is forcing people towards ‘band-aid’ solutions due to the inaccessibility of proper support. In Australia, more than half of the people with a mental illness don’t receive or cannot access mental health services. Indeed, in a survey conducted this year, 16.1% of women stated that they couldn’t afford to see a mental health professional when they needed to. That figure grows when you focus on women with an annual income below $24,500 and when one accounts for prior disabilities or cultural differences that may make women more prone to discrimination when they access mental health services. Thus, rising from the shambles of our mental health system was the self-care movement with its false promises to do what our healthcare system cannot. Self-care is often DIY and can be done without the assistance of others. In many instances, it can also be a lot cheaper than a healthcare appointment and secondary costs like travel, medications, and follow-ups. How many times have you seen a cute video, touching quotes, tea-time or coffee catchups advertised rather than an in-depth introduction course to our mental health system and how to use it? Or genuine information on where to seek specialised assistance for gendered health issues like vicarious trauma? How many times have your Instagram ads tried to sell you a diffusor or a yoga class rather than mental health groups in your area? Buy yourself something nice and you are now equipped with the weapons and tools necessary to fight off the ‘big sad’. However falsified the narrative is, it’s still perpetuating the idea that if women only invest in a weighted blanket, their legitimate health issues will cease to exist. 

This is a trend that has placed a burden upon Australian women. The sad irony is that the self-care movement initially began as a reaction to institutional shortcomings in the treatment of marginalised communities—women of colour and women who identify as LGBTQIA+. In a society that does not respect your existence, caring and loving yourself is a form of political protest. It is a way of showing compassion for marginalised minds and bodies against societal rhetoric that is incapable of doing so. However, now these practices have been commodified and our reliance on them can come at the detriment of seeking formal and professional help. A simple look at the marketing campaign of any self-care journal or relaxation tea will show obvious gendered bias. Female models, a feminine colour palette—soft pinks and purples—as though trauma is coloured by pretty pastel shades. As with many concerns, when it comes to women, certain issues are often depicted and perceived to be less important and, hence, are downgraded. We are women and we were once girls. And in our younger years, we were often taught to not be offensive or frank despite how much our families or mentors tried to hide us from that tenet. Naturally, that attitude bleeds into how we engage with matters that will sometimes be ugly. This is the genesis of the self-care movement and its predatory intrusion on how women are taught to treat mental health issues. Patriarchal ideals and unfair narratives show up in unexpected and innocent ways. Women are taught to make it neat, make it palatable, and make it cute. If this is the highway of thought our neurons have been taught to travel down, it is difficult to unlearn it when we begin to encounter a greater roadblock that cannot be overcome using this same pattern or behaviour. One of those roadblocks is mental health.

We have an obligation to push back against learned patterns of behaviour that disadvantage us. The obsession with self-care speaks to a larger issue of how women’s issues are all too often simplified and made pretty instead of being treated with proper respect. Self-care has been co-opted by social-media, retailers, and even organisations such as the one I worked for, to sell women the idea that indulgence and an expensive self-care routine is a valid substitute for professional assistance.

It is time to change the dialogue and discussions around mental wellbeing, to recognise that self-care is a supplement, not a solution.

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