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Rethinking Self-Care as Mental Health Support in the Neoliberal Economy

- Ayushman Shakya

Illustration of a man and woman relaxing on a beach.

Off late, Gen-Z is being lauded for being more openly vulnerable and accepting of psychological distress than previous generations. They are also more likely to seek out mental health support. People are increasingly acknowledging the significance of mental health and adopting the use mental health jargon in their daily lives. Much of this awareness comes through social media - whether through mental health awareness pages, memes, mental health influencers - albeit the veracity of these sources is unregulated.

The popular understanding of ‘self-care’ is Western centric and widely accepted influential in other parts of the world; it is, thus, shaped by individualistic and consumerist notions of self-care. Research has implicated how pervasive socioeconomic systems impact people's mental health. Neoliberal economic policy prescriptions also shape our cultural and social lives. According to market rationality, neoliberalism promotes and favors individualism, self-reliance, consumerism, and personal gain as essential values, as these are desirable to the Western market.

Moreover, a neoliberal economic structure is characterized by deregulation, privatization, crushing of trade unions, and competition in public services. The private sector comes to dominate the public, meaning that public services are increasingly privatized and inaccessible to the general public. While the Indian economy cannot be characterized as completely neoliberal, since 1991, one can notice a heightened dependence on the market to provide public services, and a decrease in government expenditure on its people. In fact, out-of-pocket expenditures account for around 64% of total healthcare expenditures in the country. In a country that does not allocate a sufficient budget for mental healthcare and where the healthcare sector is majorly financed by households, the burden of paying for mental health services falls on individuals – thus limiting access.

Within this capitalist framework, ‘self-care’ has slowly become a metaphor for rebellion against the hamster wheel that is now our lives. It is about choosing yourself over everything else – whether toxic productivity or the commodification of our social lives.

In fact, the self-care movement started as a way for marginalized people in the US to manage distress, mental illness and maintain their health in response to the American healthcare system neglecting their needs and denying them care. Women’s rights activists developed their own ideas about self-care as they fought to secure reproductive rights from the state.

Today, self-care is largely about consumption. Watching movies alone, retail ‘therapy’, buying candles, bath salts, a book, and spa treatments are meant to provide for your diminished mental and physical energy.

Living in a society that is increasingly defined by neoliberal values and norms, a person’s productivity and capacity to ‘perform’ labor plays a big role in their understanding of mental health and subsequently self-care. The conversation around self-care is now co-opted by hustle culture influencers. Such influencers, who have enormous reach and social impact, simultaneously champion hustle culture while talking about self-care as a means of further boosting productivity. This ‘neoliberal self-care’ differs in many ways.

  1. Feeling good is expensive. The consumerist idea of self-care encourages people to purchase and acquire commodities to treat and pamper themselves. The burgeoning sales of bath salts, crystals, indoor décor, skincare products, etc. are testament to this, and unsurprisingly the wellness market is currently a 1.5 trillion industry.

  2. Unlike the notion of self-care from the ‘60s and ‘70s, self-care has become a highly individualized activity. Instead of stressing the importance of social support and community care, we are encouraged to isolate ourselves from the world and focus on ourselves.

  3. Self-care is being pushed as an idea of self-preservation, by the same organizations that are unwilling to care for their employees. Forever 21, for instance, which has a wellness and self-care category, was sued multiple times by their own employees for inhumane work practices.

As Liesel Goeckar writes, “The messaging that businesses, ads and influencers hawking self-care is not, ‘you’ll be okay if you care for yourself,’ but ‘if you’d cared for yourself, you’d be okay.’

Self-care is currently marketed as a band aid that promises to cover a gaping wound and contain the spurting blood loss. To think of self-care as a ‘one size fits all’ is to ignore the realities of multiple people and communities that face unique challenges that shape their lives in various ways.

The consumerist idea of self-care has come to replace professional mental healthcare, even though self-care cannot help one recover from severe distress and mental health conditions, from illness, as it does not address the issues underlying the distress. The individualized notions of self-care cannot replace social support and community care.

In an age where our lives are hyper-focused on productivity, and our personhood is shaped by the products we buy, where our systems fail to provide mental healthcare, and where most cannot afford to spend resources to get said care, this warped notion of self-care is, simply, not giving.


Ayushman Shakya (he/him) is a Research Assistant at Nolmë Labs. He is pursuing his Masters in Psychology and aims to become a queer affirmative therapist. You can find him ranting on Twitter (@marxpilledpsych) and Instagram (@ayushmannshakya).

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