How the unexamined beliefs of the wellness world can be damaging to mental health.
It’s not news that the wellness world meets at the cross-section of self-development and privilege. It’s been touted as largely a space for white, middle-class women who have the money and access to never-ending supplements, fitness programs, spiritual retreats, and life coaches. It is the world of manifestation where the external world is only as unforgiving as you let it be through your own negative thinking and limited dreams of your future. Change your thinking, develop healthy routines, practice self-love, surround yourself with coaches and positivity, and you will be on your way to a six-figure income from the comfort of your own minimalist-chic home.
Toned, tanned bodies, flawless instagram photos, clear thinking, boundless energy, and a community of inspiring entrepreneurs is the dream that is sold to many of us. The underlying philosophy of the wellness world seems innocent enough: choose natural, “clean” products and lifestyles over manufactured and you will find your way to mental and physical wellness. With this philosophy, comes the damaging belief that taking psychiatric medication for depression, anxiety, or other disorders is a cop-out. Rather than popping Prozac, we should be meditating more. We should be eating clean, exercising, journaling, and upping our vitamin D rather than relying on Lexapro or Lithium.
This is all good in theory, but it’s damaging in its short-sightedness of the reality of millions. This belief ignores the privilege in which it is deeply embedded: that of time and of accessibility. The truth is, to be able to heal naturally and without medication requires a significant amount of hours in your week devoted to self-care. These are hours that many people in the current structure of our economy just don’t have. Instead, they have 40+ hour work weeks, childcare, families, long commutes, appointments, cleaning, cooking, bathing, and many other basic and demanding life tasks.
I’m someone who has a significant amount of privilege in that I was able to go to grad school for mental health counseling and during that time I relied on loans and grad assistantship rather than working. Because of this, I had time in my schedule where I could fit in daily workouts, time where I could both research how and then prepare healthy, nourishing meals, time where I could devote to journaling and processing my difficult emotions, time where I could learn about embodiment through a yoga class, time where I was constantly learning new skills through podcasts and applying them, and most importantly, time where I could make sure I was getting 8 restful hours of sleep a night. During this time I could successfully manage my depression and anxiety without medication, but even then, just barely. If I went away on a weekend trip and shook up my routine or if a large enough stressor showed up in my life, it took all the time and strength I had to double down on my health practices and make sure my mental health remained a priority. In fact, this delicate balance took so much time and energy, there were times I wondered if I could even fit in time for friendships or building deep relationships.
And again, I say this as a person with massive amounts of privilege. The demons I was struggling with were moderate depression and anxiety, they were not extensive, chronic childhood abuse, they were not the devastating peaks and valleys of bipolar disorder, they were not the lived experience and cycle of poverty and survival, they were not the heartbreaking effects of an early psychotic break. My mental difficulties were not as complex or as severe as many people struggle with, the hours and time in my day were far greater, the access to information and skills extensive, my income was disposable just enough to buy the supplements I needed, and yet I still just managed to maintain my mental health.
This highlights the sheer amount of resources, both internal and external that are needed to maintain mental health. So for me to take my experience and tell others that they too should get off their medication and heal themselves naturally, that they will be better, healthier, or more moral for it is actually a very dangerous assumption. One that the wellness world makes often and without reflection. Whether individuals follow their dictum or not, the pressure and cultural belief that is shaped around this idea leads to feelings of shame or not being good enough. Thoughts of ‘I should be able to manage these feelings on my own, if I can’t, there must be something wrong with me.’
There is nothing wrong with you. There is nothing wrong with the fact that now that I’m working 40 hours a week in a community mental health center where I’m required to give massive amounts of emotional energy to my clients, I no longer have the time or space to do everything that I would need to do to manage my mental health medication-free. I still prioritize healthy meals and 8 hours of sleep. But the reality is, I fit in exercise and meditation when I can. That is not always every day. I try to write in my journal for at least 10 minutes daily, but that is not enough time for me to fully process and release all of my emotions. My work is high stress and there is not enough time in my day to combat the impact of it. And I’m someone without children or other time-demanding responsibilities. The reality is mental health can be managed naturally for a lot of people (again, not all), but unless or until our society chooses to make mental health a priority our current structure does not support this as a reality.
It is damaging to have a society set up in a way that leads to overworking, stress, and burnout, without prioritizing paid family leave or affordable healthcare, and then to tell people on top of that that it is them that are failing when they cannot spin class or manifest their way out of trauma or negative thinking. I absolutely think that healing from trauma and negative thinking can occur, but to avoid the fact that our current society does not allow or give space for this to happen, is only adding to the problem rather than giving real solutions.
So please, before you tell someone, “I went off of my meds and overhauled my lifestyle and now I feel better than ever. You should do the same!” think about the impact these words could have. Be aware of the specific experience which informs you and be searchingly honest about the privilege which living medication-free requires. We cannot lift up others without first understanding the complex systems which operate in their lives. True wellness will never look the same for everyone, so let’s manufacture a dream of multiplicity, of genuine lived experiences, of diversity. Let’s include the voices of everyone, not just the voices of the privileged few.