By Kelly Christ
If you’ve been to a mall recently, you were probably bombarded with advertisements in stores like Bath and Body Works and Lush, promoting “self-care” products. Or perhaps you’ve been to your local bookstore, and you have seen shelves stacked with books promising self-help tips and guides. Maybe you have even bought into these trends yourself. As the popularity of wellness and self-love trends have sky-rocketed in recent years, it has brought more attention to the importance of mental health. However, are these trends really helpful for the awareness of mental health? Or do they obstruct seeking effective and necessary treatment for mental illness?
At the end of 2018, self-care was announced by Apple as the biggest App trend of the year. Of course, self-care is not a new concept. As Psychology Today defines it, self-care is “a continuous process of proactively considering and tending to your needs and maintaining your wellness.” Intrinsically, self-care is a positive trend for mental health. However, the massive popularity of #selflove on the Internet, as well as the commodification of it by many companies, has raised questions about whether this trend is actually good for spreading awareness and understanding of mental health.
Unfortunately, mental illness is very prevalent in the world. In 2016, reports showed that 275 million people had experienced an anxiety disorder of some kind, and 268 million had suffered from depression globally. With mental illness so common, it should not be surprising that self-care has become as popular as it has. However, it certainly seems problematic, at least to some degree, that businesses are profiting off the idea that face masks and candles can reduce the symptoms of mental illness.
A major flaw in the treatment of mental health is that more than half of those suffering from a mental disorder do not seek treatment for it. This is due to a combination of factors. Often, patients will hesitate to seek help as they fear judgment or shame. Other times, mental health treatments like therapy are too expensive or inaccessible. As a result, we must wonder whether these self-care products have become a more accessible replacement for actual mental health treatment.
Of course, it cannot be assumed that everyone using these products suffers from a mental disorder. Even if they do, they may also be seeking treatment and use the products for mere luxury. Neither of these is inherently wrong, but the preexisting difficulties of accessing mental healthcare need to be understood in the context of these businesses. There are many reasons why effective mental health care has been so difficult to institute.
Mental illnesses are complicated and often long-term, and as a result can be expensive to maintain continuous treatment for. There is almost never a one-size-fits-all solution for mental illness. “For psychiatric conditions, there wasn’t a broken bone to fix, or a cancerous cell to target,” reports Shayla Love of Vice Magazine. The endeavor often seems too costly and long-term for doctors to provide. Despite the obstacles, mental health treatment remains just as important as physical health treatment.
After all, mental health can become a matter of life and death, as more than 90 percent of suicide victims suffered from a mental health condition. Mental health conditions can often interfere with the ability to function effectively in society. Depression may leave someone in bed for days, and anxiety can cloud one’s mind from being able to focus on anything. The effects of mental health on its victims cannot be overstated. This is an industry that requires immediate attention.
It is comforting to know that people do want help. They want to improve their circumstances, and they often look to trendy self-care to achieve that. Many of the marketed self-care applications available from Apple provide meditation and mindfulness exercises for users. While meditation is not a cure-all for anxiety disorders, it has been shown to have some positive impacts on the mental health of those who take part, including reduced activity in the amygdala (responsible for the fight-or-flight response) and lower levels of blood biomarkers that indicate high levels of stress, says Charlottle Lieberman in a Harvard Business Review article.
Despite this, it is important to remember that it is easy to get hooked on many of these self-improvement applications. Users may quickly feel that a great deal of their self-esteem comes from whether they are able to achieve the goals they set for themselves. One study reported by the Sydney Morning Herald focused on the popular Fitbit accessory, which is used to measure and track exercise performance. Users wore the bracelets almost constantly and felt that if they were not wearing it while they exercised, their efforts had been “wasted.” These findings show that we often become obsessed with our own progress in reaching our self-care goals.
Our self-esteem becomes further dependent on outside validation. As we put more and more focus into these applications, which are supposed to better our sense of selves, we find that we are actually moving further and further away. The self-improvement business has grown into an $11 billion industry. The drive to improve ourselves and our lives is intrinsic to human nature. However, we need to recognize when we are falling too far into the marketing schemes of many of these large corporations. Mental health still needs more awareness.
It is great to see applications and products offering assistance to those struggling with anxiety, but it must be understood that they are not a cure. Consumers should still seek the advice of mental health professionals if they find themselves struggling with their self-esteem or other issues. Self-care does not always mean staying inside to rest; it can sometimes mean taking a risk and trying new experiences. If we become too obsessed with the ideas behind the self-care trend, we may find ourselves stuck in our own heads far more than we were before.
If you are struggling with mental health issues, please do not hesitate to reach out to the following resources:
Fordham University Counseling and Psychological Services (Rose Hill): 718-817-3725
Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Crisis Textline: text START to 741-741