Context Matters: Why the "Soft Approach" to Mental Illness Is a Problem

There are so many ways to support people facing mental health issues, and there are equally as many for supporting those with diagnosed and potentially lasting mental illnesses. Everyone’s first thought when they want to help is that of judgement-free verbal offerings of reassurance, but there are so many additional ways to be of use: helping the person develop coping mechanisms, helping them understand their mental health disorder, reminding them to practice self-care, notifying other loved ones if the situation is life-threatening, providing a way to a hospital or a crisis centre if needed, researching and suggesting suitable professional help… the list goes on. People often forget that it’s also important to recognize the strength it might take for people struggling with their mental health just to make it through the day. However, lately it seems like this concept has been turned into a means to absolve oneself of guilt, or satisfy an institution’s reputation by having addressed a “sensitive issue.” Focusing on the importance of self-care has been extended far past what is helpful and has become problematic and superficial in itself, through what I’m calling the Mental Health “Soft Approach.”

Often seen on Tumblr as the romanticization and minimization of mental illness, or on university campuses as the misguided “Mental Health Week,” this approach takes several forms but always undermines the type of support most people with mental illnesses actually need. The most prevalent form of this on university campuses is often seen during Mental Health Week, when the school offers support for students through scheduled programs like yoga, colouring and nature walks. While these events may offer temporary comfort for people with mental health issues, or the general populace, as a whole they are not beneficial to helping people understand and cope with a mental illness. They can make these people feel invalidated, like their mental health isn’t being properly addressed, or self-deprecating, like it’s their fault that the week’s activities aren’t making enough of a difference as promised. The positivist idea of a Mental Health Week naively makes students anticipate feeling better after the week, and those with mental illnesses can be disappointed and even regressive or exacerbated when they don’t.

Institutional Mental Health Weeks may address mental wellness, absolutely, but not mental illness. There is a distinction between the two and it needs to be recognized — claiming that these programed events are the best a university can do for students with mental health disorders is laughable. Yes, colouring might be a good coping mechanism for some, and that is incredibly important to validate and recognize, but it cannot be the sole route the institution uses to address the needs of students with mental illnesses. If the purpose of the week is to de-stress and increase mental wellness, say so; don’t imply that this week of activities is going to make a significant difference for those living with mental illnesses that won’t go away after simply taking a walk or doing some meditation. It isn’t okay to condone minimal effort from administration for a pat on the back from the board of directors.

Universities, and other establishments that claim to care about their students, need to be held accountable for the money students give to be used properly, and that includes properly addressing students with mental health disorders. How about putting even some of the funds spent on colouring books and yoga instructors, or even all the money thrown at unwanted building renovations (cough, awful new Spoke, cough) towards establishing a better mental health centre? Considering Western’s famously poor mental health services, you’d think administration would jump at the chance to prove themselves to the masses of students who don’t believe they truly care. While I can’t attest my personal experience to other schools, this isn’t Western’s issue alone -- the concept of Mental Health Week minimizing actual mental health experiences, and failing to address the severity and legitimacy of mental illness, needs to be addressed on every level of institution and aspect of support culture.

The other predominant Soft Approach to mental health is the idea of “coddle culture.” This genre of “help” is often seen on social media and is meant to make the people suffering from a mental health issue or mental illness feel heard and understood -- a well-intended rationale, absolutely, but nevertheless problematic in the way it’s carried out. It takes the form of self-care posts that emphasize the idea that mental illness can be “cured” by doing simple things, like having a spa day or going for a run. This is furthered by the fact that Tumblr, and other social medias, often romanticize mental health and illness issues to the point where they are seen as “trendy.” The increasing number of posts minimizing or idealizing mental illness invalidates the people who really have these disorders by manipulating and erasing their experiences (and coping mechanisms) and replacing them with self-care methods dangerously framed as solutions.

Ignoring the severity of mental illnesses as legitimate disorders, (and not something fabricated for attention or an exaggeration of a “bad mood”) seems to demonstrate that the people creating these posts, while they may have good intentions, do not understand mental illness at all. It implies that they think mental health or illness issues are equivalent to an overreaction to something they have personally experienced. This results in misplaced blame through implying that the person struggling is able to “just get over it” but just isn’t trying hard enough. Reading posts that say “Put on your favourite dress, go for a walk, drink some water and you’ll feel better!” can make people feel invalidated, dismissed and angry at themselves for not being able to simply “get over” their mental health issues or illnesses as stated. It can be construed as medication-shaming by implying that you just need to “get out and smell the roses” to feel okay again, and can forward the self-protective ideal that scares people into feeling like their mental health issues makes them fragile. Here’s some news for you -- if you are able to get out of bed every day and live your life while suffering from a mental health issue, or mental illness, you are an incredibly strong person. Yes, it’s important to be reminded that it’s completely okay to have worse days, and you deserve to feel proud of seemingly “insignificant” things you do to just keep living. However, it’s equally important to remember that your mental health issue or illness does not make you a weak person. It is 100% possible to acknowledge the daily challenges of people with mental health issues or illnesses without making them feel upset they can’t remedy it with a bath and some scented candles.

In these Soft Approaches to addressing mental health and illness, it seems like the privileged “helper,” (whether it be a university/institution, social media anon, friend, or family member) is not taking the time to fully understand and appreciate what mental illnesses are. The almost frivolous way they address people with mental health disorders is telling. Although their intentions may be good, in a way it almost seems like they just want to relieve some guilt, or satisfy an institutional requirement, by doing something that makes them feel like they’ve helped instead of actually being supportive in a constructive way.

I am not claiming that therapy dogs and reminders to appreciate life aren’t helpful at all, but to me they address mental wellness, not mental illness, and shouldn’t claim to address the latter. We need to hold our institutions, internet culture and society as a whole accountable for mental health -- it is not just on those suffering to “cure” themselves. And with so many positive, productive ways to help, undermining mental illness by treating it as mental wellness and passing off coping mechanisms as solutions should not be tolerated. Donate to a mental health organization, volunteer at a crisis clinic, check in on your friends and offer them the support they actually need -- not just the support that makes you feel validated to give. It is possible to offer legitimate support to those suffering from a mental health issue, but only when we stop treating mental illness like a fleeting problem that can be cured by a little self-care.

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