Discussions around mental health often focus on a need to destigmatise the subject, a need to gain better funding and a need to love ourselves.
Anyone who has suffered with depression will have been told by a friend or a loved one that they simply need to love themselves and then things will be better.
This “advice” is often well meaning but for most depressed people it doesn’t really help – in fact it can be counter-productive.
Loving yourself or even liking yourself is something that is often much easier said than done. For some people, simply getting out of bed is a huge achievement, so loving oneself is a step too far. It’s just unrealistic.
Such statements also pass the blame onto the person who is suffering, as if this person’s refusal to love themselves is why they are in a dark pit of depression, rather than a myriad of other problems.
Instead of using this empty phrase it is more helpful to look at other factors and in doing so the structures in society that actually lead to people feeling depressed or worthless in the first place.
We live in a society that is structured in a way that makes it difficult for many types of people to love themselves. A society that reminds certain bodies that they do not fit in and that they are not worthy.
This is particularly the case for people who do not fit society’s default position of a white, heterosexual, able bodied, gender conforming person.
How can we simply say “love yourself” to someone who has been positioned as the “wretched of the earth” within the context of colonial capitalism?
Such mantras only serve to reproduce the logic of capitalism by putting the onus on the individual to improve their condition, rather than viewing the issue as a part of a more structural and societal problem.
Will loving oneself upend capitalism and subvert colonial ideologies? No. As long as these structures exist many people will be left feeling unworthy, unloved and incapable of loving themselves.
For some people the simple reminder to love themselves might work, but even if it works for them, it will not change the fact that society is structured in such a way as to cause people to feel unhappy and unworthy. It also has the effect of erasing the way in which people feel oppressed by society.
By saying “love yourself and you will be fine” you are denying the fact that society oppresses people and causes certain people to feel unhappy.
Oppression is exhausting and it is real, as I wrote for Skin Deep:
We are relentlessly lambasted in the press and by politicians, pathologized as either terrorists, in the case of South Asians, or criminals, in the case of Black people. Seen as hindrances, as blemishes on an idealised fantasy of British society, we are constantly expected to justify our positions here. We fear the very real threat of physical violence or harassment, which has surged in recent years as nationalistic fervour increases and lines are drawn between those who conform to exclusionary British ‘values’ and traits, and those who are seen as other.
Self-love isn’t going to stop this. We need to link our mental health to a wider critique of societal structures that are designed to oppress us. The discourse around self-love, whilst well meaning, is often patronising and erasing.
People have a right to be angry at the world we live in, they have a right to feel hurt. They also often need this to be validated, rather than ignored.
Does capitalism make us unhappy? Yes. Does colonialism make people of colour feel unworthy and inferior? Yes. Let’s not deny these things. Allow people to be angry, there is often catharsis in this process.
Let’s use this anger as our basis for moving forward, rather than dismissing it simply and ignorantly as people refusing to get better.
If you want to help these people, acknowledge their pain, acknowledge why they feel this way and work towards trying to change society for the better.
For all the discussions around stigma, self-love and funding we miss the point that society is inherently oppressive. We must invest in changing this by restructuring society away from the legacies of colonialism and capitalism that are only able to thrive on us feeling unhappy and not feeling loved.
Of course we are all worthy and we all deserve to feel loved, but we must remember that in our society some people are positioned to feel more worthy and more loved than others. We must change this.
Consented’s first quarterly print magazine focuses on the subject of mental health and is available to buy online now.