“Self-care” has become a buzzy word in the past few years, and it means something different to everyone. At its core, self-care is knowing your needs and actually meeting them. But, for people dealing with mental illnesses, self-care takes on an even more crucial role—and one writer is making that abundantly clear.
“A few short years of twee self-care tips has convinced mentally-well people everywhere that depression is something you can just wash off in a bubble bath,” Jenny Trout explained in a thread on Twitter. “Tip: if a mentally ill person is talking about self-care, they probably mean brushing their teeth or making a sandwich. In my experience and from the stories of others, self-care is rarely a candlelit bubble bath with luxurious pampering.”
She followed that up in her Twitter thread by pointing out that there’s nothing wrong with taking bubble baths, per se, and if they help you, that’s great. But you can’t expect them to help everyone—and you definitely can’t treat them as a “cure” for mental illnesses. “Part of the problem is that a lot of us who are mentally ill do not have the energy or the voice to write seventy thinkpieces a week about yoga and bubblebaths that ‘allies’ do,” she said.
Plenty of people related in the comments section. “Seriously. I’m tired of the go exercise and breath fresh air posts. I do. Every single day. Still get beat down with depression sometimes,” one person wrote.
“Truth. My New Year’s resolution this year was to brush my teeth 2x a day everyday no matter what & I did so well for like 4 months I’m really proud,” another said. “To most people I guess that’s second nature or whatever but I was so proud of myself which matters to me.”
Trout also tells SELF that it’s “frustrating” that people who don’t struggle with mental illness interpret self-care as luxuries everyone enjoys but rarely gets time to do. “It’s all well and good to say that going to a yoga class or taking a candle-lit bubble bath is self-care, but many of us operate from a place where brushing our teeth is insurmountable,” she says. “That’s not to say that no mentally ill person anywhere can’t benefit from a bubble bath, because there are levels of illness and everyone has their bad and good spots. But to make only the Instagram-worthy moments the focus is destructive to people who are just trying to survive.”
Not only are these habits important for general wellness, but basic self-care behaviors are some of the primary things therapists evaluate when they assess a person’s mental health, clinical psychologist John Mayer, Ph.D., author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells SELF. For example, if a patient says that they struggle to get dressed in the morning and rarely shower, that might indicate that they’re depressed. “The ability to complete self-care behaviors takes mental energy and by definition, depression is a lowering of mental energy,” Dr. Mayer says.
But finding ways to help patients engage in self-care also makes it easier for them to cope with their symptoms, Dr. Mayer says. And engaging in regular tasks—like taking a shower every morning or brushing your teeth—can create a helpful sense of structure in a person’s life, he says.
Of course, there’s a wide spectrum with mental health, and everyone’s situation is different. If you have a mental health condition and don’t have issues taking care of your basic hygiene and nutrition, that doesn’t mean you don’t need self-care—it just means that your self-care needs are different, Mayra Mendez, Ph.D., L.M.F.T., a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for mental health services at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells SELF.
There are even nuances with basic human needs—some people may not need to wash their hair every day, while others do. “You can go down the list of self-care and discover that, except for a few fundamentals such as brushing teeth, everyone is different,” Dr. Mayer says.
If you aren’t sure what self-care behaviors you need to do to meet your own needs, Ken Yeager, Ph.D., director of the Stress Trauma and Resilience program at The Ohio State University, tells SELF that focusing on the basics and creating a routine that works for you is an important first step. That may mean actually writing down the things you need to do each day, starting in the morning, like use the bathroom, brush your teeth, make your bed, eat breakfast, etc. Then, you can build from there. “You might only get the first one or two things done in a day, but with time the goal is to do more,” he says.
Being kind to yourself in your own mind is also crucial, licensed therapist David Klow, founder of Skylight Counseling Center in Chicago and author of You Are Not Crazy: Letters From Your Therapist, tells SELF. “Even if you are exercising, eating right, and surrounding yourself with good people, if you are unkind to yourself internally then you may still feel overwhelmed,” he says. “Developing more self-compassion is the real key to self-care.”
Self-care isn’t in itself a treatment for mental illness, but it’s usually an important component alongside talk therapy and/or medication, Dr. Yeager says. It can be as simple as knowing your needs and when to put yourself first. That can mean canceling plans if you just don’t have the mental energy, and knowing that it’s the best choice for you in the moment, Dr. Mendez says.
If, at the end of the day, your self-care really is “getting your nails done or having lunch with a friend,” that’s OK, Trout says. “[But] you’re not doing anything wrong if the only self-care you can handle is very basic or a long soak in a tub exacerbates your symptoms instead of alleviating them,” she continues. “It’s our cultural dialogue about mental illness that’s doing it wrong—not you.”