The difference between mental health and wellness
It is no secret that mental health has been thrust into the spotlight in the twenty-first century. As the generations have passed, more types of human experience have been normalised. The narrative that we tell ourselves in the UK is that, ever since the cultural revolution of the 1960s, we have become steadily more liberal, and steadily more conscious of the rights of those that don’t necessarily belong to the white cisgender community.
This shift has occurred for many reasons – reasons that sociologists, historians, and anthropologists would be far more qualified to speak of than me. However, anecdotally, I believe that such changes have partly happened due to the conversations that we are more inclined to have; conversations about sexuality, race relations, and gender roles. Whether one has caused the other, or the other way around, remains to be seen. Either way, it is fascinating that our conversations can have such an effect on one another.
We all know that it is talking to one another, frankly and without judgment, that can lead to the greatest cultural shifts. By this, I mean both the conversations we have at a grassroots level – amongst friends and relatives – and also the conversations we have across society in general.
The books that are published, the debates held within both political and academic spheres, and even the way we bring up our children and discuss generational differences; all this has contributed to both a widening of our perspective and an increased openness in our minds, towards those who experience life differently. Or, at least, we’d like to think, wouldn’t we?!
I am doing my best here not to succumb to the pitfalls of generalisation. I am aware that, in recent years, there has been a strong reaction, particularly online, against the effects of liberalism within our society on a global scale. Towards every idea, there is an equal and opposite; nowhere is that more keenly felt than in the political landscape of both the USA and Western Europe currently. However, despite the spike in vitriol and fury towards left-of-centre liberalism (I hasten to add that such criticism has come from both sides of the political spectrum), there are some lingering effects of egalitarianism. Increased awareness of mental health is one of these spectres.
Over the last decade, mental health has become ‘a part of the conversation’, to use the time-honoured adage. Where once those suffering from the worst mental disorders were locked away and treated experimentally, either in mental asylums or, slightly later, within legitimate hospitals; such people are now beginning to gain more rights and visibility within our society.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a hell of a long way to go yet. However, we have started a discourse that I hope will only continue along the same trajectory for decades to come. Where once we placed blame, we are now beginning to empathize. Where once mental illness was mistaken for weakness of character, we are now beginning to see the great value that people who experience mental illness have within our society.
Furthermore, on an individual level, I hope that we are all more inclined to regularly consider our own mental health. There has been a shift in our perspective – where once mental health was a phrase confined mostly to usage by psychiatrists treating patients and patients with the most potentially debilitating of illnesses – mood and personality disorders mostly – mental health is now the province of everybody that exists within our society.
You don’t have to have had a psychotic episode to be aware of your own propensity toward depression. You don’t have to be diagnosed with a personality disorder to feel the effects of anxiety in your life. Not only are major mental illnesses more accepted, but less severe disorders are gaining traction and visibility.
The truth is that everybody, whether they even know it or not, has ‘mental health’. Some people have very good mental health; for some, mental health is a source only of despair. For most of us, mental health is a rocky journey, capable of both peaks and troughs. Mental health is no longer the parochial domain of the unspoken and the unheard. It is something everybody possesses, just as one possesses a stomach and a digestive tract – some peoples’ bowel movements give them great trouble; for others, the digestive process is plain sailing.
Of late, another term has been added to the cornucopia of psychiatric terminology turned social media buzzwords. Wellness. ‘Wellness’ is a strange word – twenty years ago, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether it actually was a word at all. In the Cambridge Dictionary, ‘wellness’ is defined as “the state of being healthy, especially when it is something that you actively try to achieve”.
There is nothing wrong with this per se. However, when you scroll further down the page, you can see that most of the examples used to illustrate wellness revolve around the workplace rather than the individual. The example sentence offered by the Cambridge Dictionary is as follows: “Employers who emphasize worker wellness get a healthy return on their investment.” This is where the term wellness begins to denote something quite sinister.
Thing is, the true meaning of wellness has been disguised for quite some time. There are those who use it pretty much interchangeably with mental health, mental wellbeing, and the like. However, wellness isn’t mental health in the strictest sense. Rather, wellness is a means to an end. It emphasizes the importance of the individual but does not take into consideration what is best for that individual.
Wellness is never really about an individual being happy with themselves as a person. It is a term used by companies who want to maximise productivity and profit. They know that stress and mental illness are two ways in which the productivity of the workforce is inhibited.
Therefore, they begin wellness schemes that seek to dispel stress, anxiety, and depression. This seems like a good thing, which is why it has gone unchallenged for so long. After all, who wouldn’t want to dispel stress, anxiety, and depression among the general population? It is a noble pursuit, surely!?
And it would be, if those who sought to do it did so out of genuine concern for those less fortunate than themselves. However, the reality is that wellness is a euphemism. And not a sexy euphemism either. No, wellness is a euphemism for profit.
Nowadays, you’re not allowed to do many things as a company. One of these such things is to seek to deliberately generate profit, without parading some nobler purpose at its core. Every company has to have a philosophy; a social conscience; a purpose beyond the mindless generation of GDP. Whether it’s endorsing Pride month or having yoga in the canteen every Thursday, companies have to be seen to be doing something more than they actually do.
Wellness is happiness that corporations hope to get something out of. Wellness has very little to do with mental health. Sadly, people get confused between the two. This happens because corporations want you to be confused. They want you to confuse productivity for contentment and profit margins for self-esteem. Wellness puts the onus on the individual as an employee rather than as a person.
It analyses a person’s wellbeing in much the same way as a lion eyes up an unassuming gazelle. Wellness is wishy-washy, virtue-signalling, corporate newspeak. It is indicative of the gaping hole that exists within late-stage capitalism, the gaping hole that neoliberalism wants to cash in on rather than close.
That is the difference between mental health and wellness. Only one of them really exists – the other is simply made up by companies that need to address the increase in stress and anxiety amongst their workforce. They do so by placing the onus on the employee experiencing stress, not the reason that the employee was stressed in the first place. I’m no psychiatrist – that is plain for anybody to see. However, it seems obvious that we should never recommend people to focus on their wellness. We should always recommend people pay attention to their mental health.
About the author
Rebecca Clayton is a writer and essayist, an alumnus of both King's College London and University College London. Rebecca is most interested in the myriad ways cultural theory can unlock new meanings within classic and contemporary works of literature. Other interests include stand-up comedy, classic rock, and cats (all alliteration is purely coincidental - Rebecca doesn't only like things beginning with 'c').