…the soul always wants to be…

When Mental Health Means Not Living: The Politics of Self-Care

Despite the longstanding mental health initiatives, suicide remains the second leading cause of death in Canada among adults and children, and beyond 40 years it is the third leading cause of death (Statistics Canada, 2018.)  Why are people choosing to “nurture” their mental health by not living? 

Mental health initiatives are obviously failing.  Mere lip service for “self-care” and romantic notions of feeling empathy and compassion for yourself and others is not creating significant change.  In my book The Mastery of You I advocated for empathetic understanding to foster self-worth and nurture mental health, but the scientific data have proven me wrong too.

As suicide rates continue to rise, addressing mental health issues remains a moot point because systemic discrimination (ethnicity, race, class, sexuality, education, ability, religion etc., on every level remains intactHow can we advocate for mental health nurturance when the political and systemic conditions that deteriorate the mental health of marginal groups in our population are not changed?

As is usual, those who fight for our mental health hold the reins of power that keep the vicious cycle of systemic power structures intact. Often, pacifists are not dealing with severe mental health issues, they are the gatekeepers of power, paying paternalistic attention and advocating for our mental health which is sadly second to their own interests.   If the initiatives were effective and sincere we would see proof of change from the data regarding overall mental wellness even slightly. 

But a different story is being told. 

Look closer at the system and organizational inequities of every institution and how that affects mental health.  Rather than telling individuals what to do for self-care and self-compassion and preaching for romanticized ways to take care of themselves, why don’t we tell the gatekeepers of the systems what to do to change the biases in bureaucracies and organizations that deplete the mental health of marginalized individuals?

One can take care of themselves in all the ways and suggestions given to them, but self-care does nothing to change denial of opportunities, denial of progress, hate and racism, ageism (“too young,” “too old,”) preferential treatment, cliquishness and political corruption.  These are what diminish self-worth and mental wellness.

Your daily yoga, meditation and exercise will not give you the deserved promotion you’ve been denied.  Your opportunities lost cannot return by “deep breathing”   It might help quell anxiety, but the root cause of your anxiety is not necessarily you yourself, it’s the system you are in and the pervasive lack of equal treatment.  We are lead to believe the source of mental illness is the self.  The reality is far more multifarious, when we give consideration to both nature and nurture.  Most often, you are told that you are the reason for your emotional failures.  You are not.

Surely, we all hold personal responsibility for our health, but this duty is limited by social environments.   As soon as we exit our front door, social perceptions suppress personal responsibility. Circumstance is far more powerful than the singular entity of “you,” and “me.”

We are all prone to mental health problems because we are all human.  The gross reality is that marginalized individuals dealing with a lifetime of mental health distress are dependent on those in power for change.  In order to create real deep-seated systemic changes that foster mental health, we need power to diffuse power.

But the powerful have only one goal:  to retain their power at the cost of the souls they perceive to be beneath them. There is no way out of this.  Hence, when you are more qualified for a position, and the less qualified gets it due to “privilege,” know that taking deep breaths and practicing relaxation techniques is a bogus way of saying, to quote George Orwell, “that all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

The disappointment pains, time after time.

Self-Care is Political

For everything that begins, there must be an end.  Seeing our loved ones suffer through a long and painful illness is heartbreaking.  As they pass we say “they are now resting,”  “at peace,” “no more pain.” In the case of suicide, the debate continues.  For the individual who commits suicide, they are removed from the source of their agony: Life. 

There is no more intimate act than the taking of one’s own life, often seen as a personal choice.  Yet we do not look at their exit from the world as “being at peace.” Their passing leaves loved ones asking questions, but they will never get a reply from the one who could answer.  Why is it difficult for us to understand that when someone takes their life, they too, “are at peace,” and “will feel no more pain,” pain caused by a biased social structure.

Suicide is often seen as taking an easy way out, cowardice.  In Arthur Schopenhauer views however, it tells us that the individual upheld their ultimate power, the power over their existence.   If the persisting stigma around mental illness has made us falter in addressing mental illness, then the unmentionable taboo of suicide is even worse.  But mental health and suicide go hand in hand and we must address them concurrently.  John Stuart Mill gives us a utilitarian view in that life is a choice.  Albert Camus also paints the picture that we should have the freedom to choose. Life and death are connected by a broken bridge.  You choose whether or not to walk across that broken bridge, knowing it is damaged.

Essentially, how we decide to cross the bridge is derived from what a broken bridge means to us.  Is it danger; is it risk; is it freedom?  We think our meanings are derived personally, but nothing is farther from the truth.  Our meanings can only be formed through our interactions with others.  In other words, the decision of whether or not to cross the broken bridge that connects life and death is decided by society, not you the individual.  Social circumstance is stronger than we are as individuals. 

Emile Durkheim, one of the greatest sociological minds in his study on suicide found that, it is the society and not the individual who is responsible for acts of suicide, for society creates our social reality, we do not.

Therefore, it is not up to the individual to change and “deal with their personal problems.” Society must change. This is social responsibility, and from a social scientific perspective, it preempts individual responsibility.

We are deceived into thinking that duty to self is to be productive, work hard and achieve your aspirations.   This is not duty to the self.  It is duty to power dynamics. In being sincerely dutiful to our self, we must challenge the inequities that persist, that deprive too many from their aspirations.  It is the deprivation gap that carries with it and informs our mental health and ideations of dying.  The only true condition of our existence is inequality.  But we are all equal in one way:  that we will die.

Prior to modernity, the discussion was not riddled in rationality and logic.  Death by your own hands could be justified by moral choices that depended on a kind of permanence in dreadful living conditions. 

Today, the lack of acceptance lies in the various tools that can supposedly help to eradicate our pain, depression, fears, anxiety, physical and mental illnesses and suffering. Our personal struggles and discomforts of today are seen as transient conditions.  These are momentary affronts that are fleeting because there are remedies and cures for everything. 

How could we not want to live, when there is a solution to all our problems? The only effective solution stares at us clearly, but we ignore its presence and pretend to keep looking for it.  It’s quite simple, but impossible to accept:  Equality.

As Albert Camus candidly said “Should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee?”  Life is no longer a sacred thing, cloaked into the realm of the sacrosanct but it has converged with the profane dimensions of existence.  The self is consumed by technology, and displeasures of material gain, moving our attention further away from the real causes of unhappiness and disillusion.

Self-Care is not about how well you perform, you do not feel better about yourself for doing a “great job.”  Rather when you do a good job, the feeling of fulfillment is the trigger to self-care.  The trigger is ultimately political because it depends on input from those in power.

Self-caring does not enable your potential to complete a duty or make you more conscientious.  The fruition of fulfillment gained from practical work nurtures self-care.  The nirvana you get from rewarding work is similar to the “high” from a drug.  Satisfied living induces those “feel good” moments.  And like a drug, the more good you feel the more you want to feel it and become driven by every means to get it.  Self-care can become an addiction too.  But it requires the nurturing of mental health, and the interventions from the powerful. 

Self-care is not about looking to an “expert” for help in finding solutions.  How can anyone else know what you need to feel good?  While everyone can benefit from suggestions and advice caring for the self is not found in books, spas, retreats, exercise, these are mere tools of self-care because self-care is sheltered in your soul, your heart. It results from how you are treated, and how you are treated depends on systemic conditions, tis a vicious cycle.

We must feel sorrow to know what it is to feel good, we must experience imbalance in life, to appreciate balance, must feel imprisoned to appreciate freedom. The etymology of care is “food for the soul,” but the soul must be starved first to feel satisfaction, and this recognition is self-care. It is practical and found in the political structures, not spas.

We are wrong to think of self-care as food for the soul.   It is not about feeling good, harmony, balance and freedom as we’ve been told.  Self-care is a distraction from the real structural determinants of mental health. 

Ultimately, self-care is leading others to recognize that feeling terrible, lacking self-worth, and mental wellness is a result of our social milieu.  It is only when we experience and live through these conflicts in life that we can experience their opposite and the opposite is never in our hands.