Wellness Culture and Mental Illness

Wellness Culture and Mental Illness

In January, wellness culture tends to be more prominent than ever — it seems as if the whole world becomes intent on creating a healthier, more productive version of themselves. For those with mental illness, this narrative can be damaging. My brother, who has chronic anxiety and depression, has often spoken about how wellness culture can leave him feeling frustrated and inadequate.

Mental Illness is more Complex than Wellness Culture Tells Us

A quick Google search will turn up a million different diets and lifestyle programs that promise to completely transform your body and mind if you just follow them to the letter. Glowing testimonials will talk about curing depression, alleviating anxiety, completely negating the need for medication — you name it, they’ve claimed it. 

Over the years, my brother and many others have invested time and money into gurus who promise they can provide a « cure » to mental illness. Of course, they can’t — and that leads to a feeling of failure and hopelessness for the unfortunate client.

Wellness Culture Can Ignore the Reality of Mental Illness

I adore yoga and meditation, but I had to leave an online yoga class early last week because of the narrative that was being pushed. The teacher talked us through a guided meditation, where we were encouraged to « just walk away from » any illnesses or ailments we might have.

My heart broke for attendees with any type of chronic condition and how that statement might make them feel — because if we can « walk away » from our illnesses then the implication is that illness is a choice. Anyone who’s seen or experienced the effects of mental illness will know that absolutely nobody would choose that as their preferred life, regardless of what wellness culture might say.

Can We Protect Loved Ones from Toxic Wellness Culture?

We can’t make decisions for loved ones with mental illness, but we can give guidance when asked. The best thing I can do for my brother with regard to wellness culture is to help him manage his expectations. For example, if he joins a new exercise program I can encourage him by pointing to evidence linking exercise to reduced cortisol levels, but remind him that exercise will not « cure » his depression.

I should point out here that, as always, different things will be helpful to different people — my issue is not with any particular wellness program, rather with the outlandish claims that many prominent voices in wellness culture make in relation to mental illness. Does anyone else have experience with wellness culture and mental illness, good or bad? Leave a comment.

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