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Is Mental Health Becoming Just Another Buzzword?

Everyone may have mental health, but not everyone has mental illness.

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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. Does self-care work? Sure, it works for some people. Many, in fact. 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.

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