Bubble baths are for washing, not ‘fixing’ mental illness

Why has ‘self-care’ become synonymous with solving our mental health issues?

I can’t remember the last time I had a bubble bath. But I can remember the last time that I was having a really rough day, week, month or even year. Strangely, when in the throes of the shit storm that accompanies life being turned upside down — and your state of mind alongside it — the idea that taking a bubble bath might make any tangible difference has never crossed my mind.

That’s because it would have made absolutely no tangible difference whatsoever.

Eating kale has never made a difference to my mental health. Nor has lighting scented candles or practicing my downward dog, if I’m honest. Please don’t get me wrong — these are all very nice things that can often help us find a moment of calm or clarity in a day or week that feels hectic and unmanageable. We can certainly all do with more nice things in life.

Nice things, however, can’t be relied on to fix mental health issues.

You would be forgiven for thinking that this were the case, judging by the abundance of articles that promote “mental health toolkits” which package up self-care to be sold as an answer to mental health difficulties. The number of these articles has crept up over the years but, unfortunately for this particular writer, this article was the straw that broke this camel’s back.

It is an example of how the narrative is being narrowed and flooded with the same ideas — sanitised ones that the mainstream can connect with easily because they allow us to remain comfortable. Of course, learning to manage our mood and stress levels in the every day, day-to-day sense is absolutely critical. There is definitely a place for conversation that promotes self-care. However, I’m worried that we have “normalised” the kind of problems that are the least difficult for society to understand and address, and we are beginning to offer self-care as our only real solution.

The kind of tough day or week that can be fixed with some “me time” is the tough time that we know how to fix (and yes, that could well be with a bubble bath). We can all understand not feeling like getting out of bed one morning because the day seems unmanageable — but doing it anyway. We can’t all understand someone not being able to get out of bed for three weeks and not caring about the path of destruction that they are most likely embarking on. The jobs that will be lost and the relationships that will be pushed to breaking point.

Why is normalisation a problem? When all we have ever wanted is to end the stigma around mental health. For us to talk about it openly and with acceptance, and for people who are suffering to be embraced, not isolated. To feel normal.

The first problem is that we aren’t embracing the full spectrum of mental health issues and those that live with them. These days, depression and anxiety are something that most people can empathise with, through their own experiences or those of a loved one. It is fantastic that through sharing our experiences we have raised our consciousness of these illnesses. On the flip side, PTSD, bipolar, borderline personality disorder, psychosis (and more) are all more unfamiliar mental illnesses that are just a bit, well… awkward.

I recently have got to know a man in his 40s who has lived his life with mental illness. Over 20 years ago, in the 1990s, a doctor told him his mental health challenges were too complex for him to ever have a job or live a normal, productive life. He now works two days a week, volunteers the rest of the week, lives independently and is happy. Had it not been for the work of the charity that supports him, he would have been written off 20 years ago by a healthcare professional for his particular mental illness being ‘too difficult’, or not the norm.

The second problem is that by offering rose petal bath bombs, a detox or a Nepalese silence retreat as our best answers to difficult questions and stopping there, we’re not bothering to ask the really difficult questions of ourselves. What is it that will really change the fortunes of those suffering from mental illness? How do we create a society that works for everyone? Whose responsibility is it to help? It’s as though we got to #5 on the list of ‘things that have helped me when I’ve been struggling’ and given up with the hard work needed to uncover the rest of them. When that’s exactly where the real answers lie — and I don’t believe we’ve uncovered all of them yet.

Articles that focus on mental health are vital though. I want to see more headlines about mental health. I certainly don’t want writers to stop writing about the ways in which we can create the time and space to give ourselves that much needed TLC. I don’t want us to stop using mindfulness apps or taking a moment to sit on a park bench in the sunshine and reflect. All of this is helpful for many people.

What I do want is for us to really start addressing those who don’t fit in the ‘many’ by challenging our current perspective. I want us to broaden our understanding of mental health issues — the many shapes and sizes mental illness can come in, how many of us it affects and what the impact on life can be. We all know we can talk about self-care now — and that has helped so many people. But who is going to move the conversation on now? I, for one, want to try.

I would like us to realise that mental illness affects many more of us than we think, and that those of us who have experienced mental health problems are actually in the majority. We’re hidden but we’re everywhere. Just last year, stress, depression or anxiety disorders accounted for the majority of days lost due to work-related ill health in the UK. If self-care really was the answer, I don’t think this would be the case.

Let’s speak to experts, find out the facts and, through discovery and exploration, make ourselves feel uncomfortable. Let’s listen to stories and experiences that upset us or anger us or confuse us. Only by pushing through discomfort can we reach the other side with the right solutions. We need to realise the urgency of our national mental health crisis, stand in the face of what is difficult and invest in mental health in the right way. Then we can give people the right advice, the advice they really need.

It is only then that we will look back on a time when bubble bath seemed like our best defense mechanism and wonder what else we’ve got wrong.