Self-Care Looks Different When You Live With Mental Illness

It’s 2020. And we’re existing in the middle of a pandemic. It’s no wonder that all of my social feeds, and probably yours, are filled with tips and tricks to improve mental health and practice self-care. 

As someone who has been diagnosed with multiple mental illnesses, many of the listicles and self-care tips admittedly feel a bit elementary to me. I learned many of them in my early days of therapy. Taking a bath, journaling, buying some expensive aromatherapy lotion to smother all over my hands. Basic therapy 101. I also learned that many of these things don’t do much for me, nor many people with mental illness.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful that the media talks about self-care and mental health. The difference I’ve noticed from when I was growing up to now is astounding. I no longer feel ashamed to admit I’m in therapy. Yet there’s still something missing from the way we talk about mental health and self-care in media: 

Conversations about self-care are unfortunately still  geared towards people who have never lived with mental illness. 

Mental and emotional health is important for everyone, but it’s so different for folks who have lived with mental illness. It’s the difference between feeling depressed and having Capital-D Depression. The difference between feeling anxious, or nervous, and having Anxiety. The difference between being compulsive and having OCD. 

So, while self-care may look like a glass of wine and a bath to someone without mental illness, it’s much more complex for the rest of us. 

Self-care for me, and for many mentally ill people, isn’t an individual act. It’s not a quick thing I can check off my planner (oh, how I wish it was). It’s much more communal than that. To care for myself, I need others. I rely on healthcare and social systems, and I’m privileged enough to be able to access the care I need.

By telling mentally ill people that they would feel better if they just “practiced self-care,” we erase the importance of communal support and accessible healthcare in treating mental illness, thus overlooking the very real barriers that prevent many from practicing impactful self-care.

So, what does self-care look like for a person with mental illness? 

Sometimes, it’s simply existing, despite it all. 

It’s going to therapy, it’s reaching out to support systems, it’s sufficient healthcare coverage, it’s taking medication. And the rest of the self-care stuff – the treat yourself kind of things – come after. Many of those base mental illness needs rely on systems outside our control. Without those base mental illness needs covered, self-care is only a metaphorical bandaid placed over the mental illness. While yes, taking a bath or doing a face mask can help me feel better, it doesn’t always get at the root.

So if you want to talk about self-care and you want to include mentally ill people in that conversation, it’s important to talk about the structures and barriers that prevent mentally ill people from practicing effective self-care in the first place. We rely on other people and systems, which is incredibly human. I think it’s time we make those systems support us the way they’re meant to.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and I’m proud to be chipping away at the stigma, day by day. In my debut YA fiction novel, Laurel Everywhere (coming November 2020!) I tackle the topic of mental health. Alongside Laurel, readers can see how she connects with her support system and how those in her life seek help.

With all that said, I do have a list of small (not to mention, free) acts of self-care that have worked for me while existing within these systems. Check it out:

  • Going outside
  • Moving my body in some capacity 
  • Making lists
  • Setting boundaries with friends 
  • Turning off social media
  • Eating at least two meals
  • Sleeping
  • Talking with someone in my support system

Thanks for reading and helping me break the stigma!


Laurel Everywhere

Fifteen-year-old Laurel Summers couldn’t tell you the last words she spoke to her mother and siblings if her life depended on it. But she will never forget the image of her mother’s mangled green car on the freeway, shattering the boring world Laurel had been so desperate to escape. Now she can’t stop seeing the ghosts of her family members, which haunt her with memories of how life used to be back when her biggest problem was the kiss she shared with her best friend Hanna.

After the accident, Laurel and her dad are left to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. Her dad is struggling with his grief and depression, unable to cope with the loss of his family. He seeks a way out of his pain, leaving Laurel behind while he struggles to cope with his own mental illness. She is desperate to find a way to hold everything together again and help her father come to terms with the loss so he can come back to her.

Laurel tries to make sense of her pain with the help of her grandparents, her two best friends, and some random strangers. As she struggles to understand who she is without her family, she must come to terms with the items on her List of Things Not to Talk About, learn to trust her dad again, and—on top of it all—keep her heart open to love in the wake of her immense loss, eventually learning that it’s OK to not be OK.