The limits of self care 

Happy World Mental Health Day! Is that an oxymoron? I’m genuinely not sure.

I’ve had depression for over ten years now, but days like this do make me feel genuinely positive, because when I was first diagnosed – way back in the Stone Age of 2006 – mental health wasn’t something you were open about, and if you’d told someone you were staying in for a night of self care, they’d have assumed it involved your hand and an Indiana Jones DVD*.

But I’m going to be bloody contrary aren’t I, and do a contrary little post on my contrary little blog, because being contrary is definitely not one of the personality traits which makes me incapable of relaxing.

Compared to when I first saw the black dog come bounding into my dorm room at uni, many more people are honest about their mental health, many more employers pay lip service to “well being” and many more government officials wring their hands about the mental health crisis – whilst their boots tramp all over the faces of NHS staff, but come on, when even stiff upper lip Tories at least pretend to take mental health seriously, the times-they-are-a-changin’.

What’s not changed though, is that whilst we’re more okay with going “yeah I’m a bit sad/mad somtimes” or going “please don’t use the word mad, Becki/old school friend on Facebook/annoying Uncle over Christmas dinner, it’s disablist”, we’re totally not there yet on tackling the causes of our mental health issues, or society’s as a whole.

Instead of talking about the causes we talk about treatments. In that conversation, a lot of attention is given to that thing that’s definitely not* wanking that I mentioned before: self care. The general thinking behind self care goes like this: if you’re prone to mental illness, or even if you’re not, not eating your greens, not going for walks in the fresh air, not meditating for ten minutes a day, not painting your nails, not taking a night for yourself, not watching Raiders of the Lost Arc and not generally relaxing every now and then will make you more sick and stressed. So we should all make sure we make time for ourselves – to do things we enjoy, to feed and water our bodies and souls properly. And if we make time for that, it will be easier to get well, easier to cope.

That is all true. I don’t want anyone to read the rest of this blog and feel guilty for taking time alone with their equivalent of Indiana Jones films. Self care is a wonderful thing and we should all do more of it. In fact, I’m doing it right now. Harrison Ford is nowhere in sight, but I’m sat writing with this view:

with a bar of Hotel Chocolat’s finest, and on Thursday I’m going to sit in a spa all day and swan round very clean white rooms in very clean white dressing gown, inhaling Japanese rock salt and lavender, feeling like I’m a really clean cult member.

But whilst I was feeling grateful for the view and my chocolate bar and the cult robes, and patting myself on the back for being really good at self care, something struck me: focusing on it as a treatment obscures the fact that a lack of opportunity for it is a cause.

If society doesn’t care for you, it is practically and emotionally more difficult to care for yourself. 

Self care is easier the more privelege you have. 

If you’ve money in the bank to buy some flowers or nail polish or a good book, or to go on holidays, a safe green space to walk in, the education and money to know what foods to eat, access to a properly resourced GP, a job paid well enough that you’re not working two of them… you will find it much, much easier to practice self care and look after yourself with someone with only one or even none of those things.

 And if you’re not one or all of these things: straight, white, male, able bodied, cisgender, chances are the way society treats you will mean you’re understandably more likely to develop a bloody mental health condition, and that you’re also practically less able to treat it. I can’t imagine, for example, that fresh air is that appealing when you’re used to getting racist or transphobic abuse, and getting to the shops to buy yourself some leafy greens to keep your brain happy may be literally impossible if you’re disabled and without full time access to transport. 

D’you get me? Self care is so important. Without some form of it, those with mental health conditions will not get well. But a conversation which only talks about treatment, not about causation, will only ever take us so far.

Alongside this, the very name given to self-care individualises what is a collective problem: a big cause or catalyst of mental health problems is inequality. Largely of class, but also of race, gender, sexuality, ability. And inequality, to paraphrase Eduardo Galeano, is not written in the stars. It is a collective creation, and can be unmade collectively. That is the best form of self care I can think of (apart from Harrison Ford): if we acknowledge that it is important, when advocating for it we should also be advocating for others to be able to practice it.

So when we are well enough, we should be practicing not just self care, but group care, community care, societal care. Fighting for better mental health does not just mean being open about your own problems. It means, when you are able, carrying out big or small acts to stop others getting sick in the first place. That will mean different things for different people, but for me, I suppose what it really means is socialism: something I truly believe in not on an ideological basis but on a very practical one: it is a system that means we all look after each other so we can all be healthy and happy, to have the same opportunity to piss round watching Harrison Ford films or swanning round in a dressing gown – or whatever.

Anyway – genuine good wishes for a good World Mental Health Day. If you’re not up to collective self care at the moment, really don’t feel bad. I’m not at the moment, it’s why I’m off to join the spa cult on Thursday. But do go and watch The Last Crusade. In fact watch the Last Crusade anyway, because it’s just legitimately one of the best films ever made. 

If you need it, the Samaritans can be reached in the UK at any time on 116 123 or jo@samaritans.org.
*don’t judge, we’ve all seen Harrison Ford.

*probably not

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