Augustine: Self-care culture is flawed

Kathryn Augustine, Assistant Opinion Editor

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Go on a walk and listen to a soothing playlist. Take a nap without setting an alarm. Give yourself a proper manicure and pedicure with a sugar scrub. Indulge in a lavender-scented bath.

Self-care has inarguably permeated the culture on college campuses across the nation.

As a means of coping with a sudden influx of negative emotions, self-care is an adequate solution. Allocating time to partake in an activity that improves your mood and state of mind is an essential practice.

However, self-care culture is toxic when the benefits are exaggerated. Self-care can provide momentary relief. Self-care can increase personal productivity. Self-care can be a preventative measure for reducing negative emotionality. But self-care cannot be the sole solution to a mental illness.

My concern with the recent trend of practicing self-care is that self-care is misinterpreted as a substitute for clinical care.

Self-care can be incorporated into the daily routines of an individual with no mental illness to maintain personal wellness. And when in distress, an individual with no mental illness can turn to self-care to cope with difficult emotions that arise.

However, when the individual in question suffers from a mental illness, self-care alone is not enough. Self-care is not equivalent to psychotherapy or psychiatric medication. Self-care is not a long-term solution. Someone who is suffering from anxiety will not be relieved of persistent symptoms after lathering on a charcoal face mask. There’s a skewed perception that self-care is a cure-all, when in reality, self-care is a singular component of managing one’s mental health.

Additionally, suggesting self-care to a mentally ill person can edge into the territory of coming across as offensive. I seriously doubt that anyone in the midst of a panic attack wants to be advised to slap on a fresh coat of nail polish. What that person needs is to receive support, from people close to them and possibly a trained professional — like being taught specific breathing and grounding techniques.

The reliance on self-care without accompanying professional assistance is understandable, though, because external care is not cheap. Without insurance, payment for each psychotherapy session is out of pocket. Even with insurance, psychotherapy sessions are not without a copay. The same is true of psychiatric medication.

But this is precisely why our University’s spending on “stress relief” — from miniature horses to popcorn in the library — is particularly frustrating. I appreciate the University’s effort, but these funds need to be diverted to increasing the number and skill sets of staff who can serve individuals that are unable to afford external care.

Self-care and stress-relief can be free of charge. The same cannot be said of clinical care.

Though self-care can be of no cost, Instagram and VSCO tell different stories. With photos of fizzling Lush bath bombs and salon-quality scrubs, self-care on social media is portrayed as unattainable. A YouTube vlogger’s self-care routine may not be a feasible option for the average person. Therefore, social media and the internet in general need to be balanced in their presentation of self-care. Low-cost self-care techniques deserve attention and may illustrate self-care as a possibility for lower-income individuals.

Another issue with self-care is the fact that it does not acknowledge the role of other people. The promotion of self-care implies that upkeep of mental health is an individual task. This is in line with America’s individualistic culture where every individual is expected to look out for himself or herself. Self-care unconsciously sends the message that if you’re struggling, you need to rely on yourself and find your own means of coping. However, I believe that opening up to others about your emotions and asking for support is equally, if not more valuable, than self-care.

A final concern with self-care is the fact that self-care is gendered. Societal gender roles exist that some men feel they need to adhere to. This means that a man may be less likely to buy scented candles for his room. This means that men may not gravitate toward the majority of self-care practices that are widely promoted. It’s unrealistic to expect every man to participate in stereotypically feminine activities because of today’s gendered culture. Therefore, we need to highlight self-care that is gender-neutral and more accessible to men or individuals who identify as non-binary.

We need to talk about self-care in a way that is inclusive and does not present self-care as a long term solution for poor mental health.

Augustine: Self-care culture is flawed

Kathryn Augustine is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at kathrynaugustine2022@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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