Has Mental Health Become Just Another Buzzword?

Everyone’s talking about mental health. Often, it’s in the context of commodifying self-care – face-masks, bath bombs, and adult-coloring books galore. Conversation around mental health has created an entirely new market, capitalizing off the notion that “everyone has mental health.” Which brings me to the question of the day – does everyone have mental health?

In short, of course everyone has mental health – we all have brains and emotions and experience stress and feelings of anxiety. But not everyone suffers from a mental illness, and we make very little distinction between clinically diagnosed mental illnesses and every day mental health. In reality, there is a huge difference between the terms “mental health” and “mental illness.” Mental health is likened to emotional wellness, described as

a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.

To juxtapose this, mental illness is much more medical and much less universal. Mental illness is

a recognized, medically diagnosable illness that results in the significant impairment of an individual’s cognitive, affective or relational abilities. Mental disorders result from biological, developmental and/or psychosocial factors and can be managed using approaches comparable to those applied to physical disease (i.e., prevention, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation).

Naturally, markets have capitalized around the growing prevalence of mental health in our vocabulary. Notably, these markets appear to be targeting women, with huge emphasis on relaxation products, self-help books, and over-priced essential oils. Does self-care work? Of course! It works for some people, many, in fact. For example: face masks make me feel better when I’m stressed or come home from a long day. But self-care frankly doesn’t get at the root of my mental illness – a bath bomb doesn’t change the fact that I have multiple, clinically diagnosed mental health disorders. Instead, my options for treatment stretch outside the realm of self-care and into the world of professional treatment and medication (which, unfortunately, are incredibly inaccessible and not viable options for many).

We sweep up mental illness and emotional wellness into the same category, all falling under the buzzword “mental health.” Though often not intending to, universalizing mental health by saying things like “everyone has mental health” and “everyone needs a mental health day” further delegitimizes mental illnesses by implying that they are something that everyone experiences. Not everyone experiences mental illness, and most people never will. Mental illness is not the same as every day, situational stress that everyone feels. We need to stop feeding ourselves this narrative that self-care is the solution to all mental health related problems, because for many folks, self-care is not an option due to the debilitating nature of mental illness.

To quote Vice,

we’ve reached a brick wall with mental health. For starters…the overuse and misuse of words like “anxiety” can lead to them losing all meaning. “Raising awareness” and “breaking taboos” are nice phrases for brands and publications, but at this point, are they really changing anything?

Instead of marketing mental health and convincing ourselves that mental health complications are universal experiences, it’s time we start acknowledging the pain folks who suffer severe mental illnesses experience and work to change our oppressive behaviors, policies, and structures. Mental health services continue to be cut, further oppressing people with mental illness, people who do not feel “cured” from a bit of self-care, but desperately need these services to live healthy lives.

It’s not an easy, surmountable task, but it can be done. From realistic representation of mentally ill characters in television and books, to fruitful conversations about ableism with family and community members, to lobbying against budget cuts to mental health services, we can all find a part to play in the movement to create a just and equitable society for people with mental illness. The buzzword of “Mental Health” has began to break the stigma – and now it’s time to create tangible, equitable change for people with mental illnesses.

SHORT STORY: Depression’s Apology

I was there when Cynthia’s mom died. She was only seven. She didn’t know who I was, or what I was, but she saw me. She felt me there, I think. She didn’t want to see me, though, so she closed her eyes and I hid. I stayed hidden for a while after that. Always there, but hidden.

I watched when the kids on the playground would tiptoe around her. They could all see me there, standing, hovering…watching. The visible, painful sadness, always in the room. But Cynthia? She ignored me for as long as she could.

I was there the day that the teacher with the long nose and messy hair called her out for being late. Cynthia hung her head and tried to ignore me. When the long-nosed teacher passed back her math test and Cynthia saw that she got a D-, she stuffed the test into her backpack and glanced up at me. She knew just where to look, which makes me think that maybe she knew I was there the whole time. When she got home, she let me hold her, and she cried so hard she threw up. I don’t think she was crying about the math test. Not really.

I was there when she got cut from the soccer team. The coach said she was too distracted, she wasn’t there, she didn’t get along well with the other girls. She didn’t connect. She let me hold her that day, too. I think it was my fault she got cut. I was always in her way. But she blamed herself.

I was there each time she felt a rush of emotions, waves of pain and sadness and anxiety that would suffocate her. I saw the looks her friends gave her – some furrowed their eyebrows and twiddled their hands nervously, worriedly, others rolled their eyes and snickered. “Is she crying?” the boy with the square-shaped head whispered to the freckled girl sitting on his lap. The girl shrugged and rolled her eyes. I held Cynthia’s hand when she cried alone in the bathroom stall.

Eventually, she looked at me. She looked at me for longer than a glance, she stared at me, she let me enter in through her eyes and travel down to her heart. I latched on, I made her heavier, and I held her tight. She let me wrap my arms around her each night and she let me tag along behind her at school. She let me whisper in her ear. “Worthless,” I told her, “There’s no point.” I didn’t really think that. I’d become quite fond of her, actually. But it was my job.

She let me consume her. I loved her and I think she loved me too, in a messed up sort of way. I couldn’t help it. I needed her to feed, to drain her, to fill her heart with my darkness. And she needed me to hold her at night. I think I made it all worse, but she didn’t have anybody else to hold her, not even herself. So I did my job.

The kids on the playground used to see me following her. They would look me in the eyes. They would point to me and they would hug Cynthia, thinking if they held onto her, I would go away. I never did. Eventually, they all stopped seeing me there. Stopped noticing. The more and more Cynthia gave herself to me, the more invisible I became. Cynthia didn’t see me then, when she was a wide-eyed, pig-tailed girl on the playground. But she sees me now, and nobody else seems to. Funny how that works out.

This is my apology, I guess. I know that I’m just doing my job. But I can still apologize.

I’m sorry,

Depression.

Why We Don’t Talk About Suicide

Suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in the United States of America. Suicide rates have been increasing. Countries with national suicide prevention programs have seen decreased suicide rates, but it’s still not doing enough, considering the frequency with which I see a new post or article about someone’s love one who passed away at their own hand. What’s going on with this? What are the prevention programs not doing? Why is this still a problem?

I’ve been doing a lot of research. I’ve been studying current suicide prevention programs as well as the history of suicide and the stigma around it. The stigma appeared with the emergence of Christianity, for to kill oneself was to kill God’s gift. Despite medical advances that have informed us that no, suicidal behavior is not a correlation with demonic possession but instead a serious mental disorder, this stigma still infiltrates itself into society, hiding in the nooks and crannies of every institution. But you know what many of the programs we have in society today are not doing? Talking about it.

It’s about time suicide was normalized. Children need to be exposed to what it is and what causes it so that they can be aware of the signs as they could appear in their peers or themselves. People need to be equipped to fight suicidal thoughts. I’m tired of hearing the room fall silent every time I bring up suicide in conversation. The first step is understanding it. If we don’t teach people to understand mental illness, then the problem will never be fixed. Talk, talk, talk! That’s all I’m asking. Destroy the stigma!