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Mental Health Throughout Time: The Roots of Self-Care and Mental Wellbeing

The ancient roots of self-care began about 2,000 years ago with Socrates in ancient Greece. Many centuries later, the notion of self-care as a revolutionary act in the context of social trauma was developed as a social practice in Black feminist thought in the United States by Audre Lorde. Lorde was an intersectional feminist, civil rights activist, writer and poet who contributed to revolutionary ideas through her writings in the 1960s. Once of Lorde’s most famous quotes is as follows:

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare."

This interpretation was centred on the holistic approach with an essential definition of self-care being a birth-right on survival and continuous self-healing. Self-care is a radical and necessary act, particularly for those in a world that discriminates based on ‘race’.

Audre Lorde. Photo Credit: The Marginalian.

In recent years, the self-care movement has been criticised for changing the narrative from self-preservation to capitalistic notions of consumption and self-indulgence. This may look like buying expensive skincare or wearing a sheet facemask. Short-term gratification may satisfy impulsive desires and it’s a natural human urge to want good things and to want them immediately. Nevertheless, it is important to reflect on the essence of self-care which is based on nurturing one’s mental and emotional health.

Self-care may look different for everyone, and it may take some time to find out what promotes better mental health for you. This could be journalling, less screen-time, socialising with a loved one, practicing gratitude, being in nature or in respect of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, exercise and movement. There is a strong connection between mental health and physical activity, supported by the release of 'feel-good' chemicals such as endorphins and serotonin. These chemicals aid in improving mood, reducing tension, and alleviating stress.

Photo credit: Runner’s World.

Tennis legend Serena Williams embraces the mind-body connection in yoga. She attributes her regular yoga practice as one of the crucial elements in sustaining her position among the world’s elite athletes, despite competing against opponents from a younger generation.

The journey of social awareness is non-linear, and it is essential to reflect on our historical progression to contextualise the current times. Mad Men (2007) is an American period drama based on the advertising industry in 1960s New York. The 1960s in the United States is often described as one of most divisive decades in world history, marked by a revolution in social norms and feminism, political assassinations, the emerging “generation gap” and the Civil Rights Movement. During this period, social revolution brought about major changes for mental health care including a reduction in hospital beds, the growth of community services, improved pharmacological and psychological interventions and the rise of patient activism. However, society’s attitudes towards mental health were still heavily stigmatised in a patriarchal society which perpetuated racial injustice.

In an episode of Mad Men, Don Draper, the main character and an upper-class white male, strongly opposes his wife, Betty Draper, seeking psychiatric treatment. This is following a doctor’s recommendation after a severe anxiety attack, which led to her losing control of her car with her children inside. Betty is described as a cold mother, who seems neglectful of her children and is battling an eating disorder and other mental health symptoms that were prevalent amongst housewives in the 1960s. Don pretty much mocks his doctor’s advice for psychiatric treatment. After much convincing, Don reluctantly allows Betty to see a psychiatrist. After her appointment, Betty’s psychiatrist updates Don, showing a lack of legal and ethical confidentiality. He says, ‘Basically we are dealing with the emotions of a child here. We’re finding that this kind of anxiety isn’t uncommon in housewives.’

Don Draper and Betty Draper, Mad Men (2007). Photo credit: BBC.

Betty’s psychiatrist failed to show any in-depth understanding of the monotonous domestic lives led by housewives during this period and the interconnectedness of gender and mental health. This also reflects the prevailing gender norms and expectations during 1960s, particularly on women’s roles as housewives and the dismissal of their emotional struggles and inconsequential in a patriarchal society which stigmatised mental health. This is the stark reality of a privileged family residing in New York, so you could only imagine what it was like for people who were not of a similar background.

This week alone, it has been reported that the wellbeing of women is falling in Britain, with what could be the largest gender health gap in global advanced economies. One of the reasons is the cost-of-living crisis which disproportionately affect women based on their salary and job security.

In our current times, we have witnessed a step in the right direction in mental health. This includes the Mental Health Act, aimed at reflecting on its disproportionate effects among Black and Minority Ethnic communities, in addition to advocacy efforts and enhanced reforms led by charities such as Mind and Place2Be. Furthermore, it involves the implementation of the Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the ongoing observance of Mental Health Awareness Week this week.  

We are capable of transformative change. Now, more than ever, we possess the knowledge and resources to prioritise mental health management and accessibility. It's time for the UK Government to step up with urgent political will for the people. 

The UK Government has set out a plan to tackle “sick-note culture” which will create further difficulties for employees to be signed off work by their GP. New figures suggest the number of sick leave days taken by UK workers is at its highest level in 15 years. This is despite the fact that just four years ago, the UK was one of the countries which had the lowest average number of sick days. 

 Source: The Economy 2030 Inquiry | Low Pay Britain 2023

Beyond the alarming figures, the narrative is far more complex. This has been happening across the board since the turning point of 2020. Let us reflect on the wellbeing of staff members who uphold our national health system and how many of them have faced burnout and isolation. In 2022, around 6 million NHS staff reported sick days related to mental health, well-being, anxiety, stress, and burnout since the COVID-19 pandemic. Research also shows that this effect disproportionately impacts Black and Minoritised staff in the NHS, who show higher rates of mental health challenges.

It is certainly inappropriate to disregard the mental health emergency that is occurring in the UK today as a "sick-note culture". But it is even more problematic when you consider the legacies of the pandemic, vulnerability of the NHS and their staff, a devastating economy, ongoing racial inequality, climate change, loneliness, the housing crisis and other countless social issues that can create and exacerbate mental health outcomes. The UK Government should not create more barriers for unwell employees who are already facing situations of feeling overworked, stressed or trauma. The government should adapt to our evolution of mental health knowledge through a social and humanitarian lens and start addressing structural barriers which lower wellbeing and increase the accessibility of mental health treatment to create radical, positive groundbreaking change. Whilst the UK Government has allocated £150 million towards addressing the mental health crisis in the NHS, this is contradicted by the government's stance on "sick-note culture" which seemingly dismisses the significance of work and mental health. 

The mental health crisis in the UK needs a caring perspective of empathy and investment, not a critical one. Therefore, policy solutions or initiatives to address the structural barriers could be funding programmes aimed at individuals who are more prone to facing mental health issues in underserved areas or within marginalised communities. Socioeconomic factors, such as income, housing, unemployment, food insecurity and social support can heavily impact mental health outcomes. The government could implement affordable and subsidised housing and increase financial and social support for young people.  

It is important that whilst the government implements policies, they include a culturally sensitive framework, which encourages inclusion and equity for a diverse population. The government could also implement policies that promote mental health awareness in the workplace – this could be mental health days, implementing well-being tips for employers, or even embracing the rise of the four-day-workweek, which has been proven to reduce the risk of burnout symptoms and make more people healthier, happier and more productive. 

For many, the world currently feels unstable and worrying. But there is a glimmer of hope – we have never been more conscious of mental health being recognised as a basic human right for all people. It is impossible to look at the issues in the world without taking into regard how they may be making people feel inside.


 Breathe Magazine  



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