Self-care, broadly defined, is small practices within daily life to treat yourself well and take care of your well-being. Promoters of self-care suggest that things like taking walks, going to the gym, painting your nails, taking a bath, journaling, having a latte, meditating and eating well: great ways to keep your body and mind healthy. Self-care is supposed to help those who deal with mental illness and/or stress take care of themselves and be in touch with their needs.
Here is my issue: the conversation around self-care is masquerading as conversation around mental health. I don’t hear people talking about what it’s like to wake up with a panic attack, to not leave your bed for three days, to be struggling to find the right medications, to have missed your past 6 lectures because you couldn’t leave your house. And what about the fact that most of those habits for mentally ill people are actually accomplishments and signs of productivity? A lot of students aren’t painting their nails to cope with anxiety; they’re doing it when they finally feel okay enough to do it.
Self-care is masquerading as the end of mental health stigma. Because we talk about self care, everyone thinks we’re talking about mental health. But many of us still don’t feel comfortable telling someone “I’m feeling depressed today,” or “I’m having a panic attack” because those conversations are still very unwelcome. And why would I want to disclose those experiences if someone is just going to suggest that I just get out for a walk or watch a movie?
We need to talk about the stigmatizing language around mental health. When I say I’m feeling anxious, and you respond that you’ve felt stressed lately too, you’re minimizing my illness. Why would I feel comfortable sharing those feelings when they will so easily be equated with “normal” feelings? And because self-care parades around as ways to deal with “stress and anxiety,” of course people still equate the two! And this goes beyond anxiety. What about depression and sadness? ADHD and being distracted? OCD and enjoying cleaning? Having a phobia and being afraid?
To me, self-care is stigmatizing mental health even more, and equating it with common feelings of discomfort or struggle. Everyone struggles sometimes, and everyone should take care of themselves, but this narrative cannot be considered a conversation about serious mental illness and chemical imbalance. We need to take many steps towards true conversations about mental health before pretending everything is good and well as long as we eat our veggies and get enough sleep.