We’re Unwell: The Mental Wellness Industry and Toxic Positivity

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By: Brian Warner

In a 1979 episode of 60 Minutes, Dan Rather hosted a segment on a strange new source of interest in the healthcare field:

Wellness. There’s a word you don’t hear every day. It means exactly what you might think it means: the opposite of illness. It’s a movement that is catching on all over the country among doctors, nurses and others concerned with medical care. Wellness is really the ultimate in something called self-care, in which patients are taught to diagnose common illnesses and, where possible, to treat themselves. More than that, it is a positive approach to health – what one doctor calls, “Recognizing that health is not simply the absence of disease.

It may’ve been new to Dan, but mental wellness, a word you’re now much more likely to hear every day, has since become a $146 billion industry. All in our quest to not just be free from mental illness but actually achieve peak health, products for your sleep, for your stress, and for your sex life are everywhere now and sold as a necessary step to get there.

Didn’t mention that in 1979, didya, Dan?

The “sellability” of mental wellness, though, creates a complicated push and pull as we all struggle to navigate this brave new world where mental health is something we’re (thankfully!) finally encouraged to talk about. “I’m not the only person I know going to therapy!” we might say, but it also comes with the realization that, for some people, wellness has been replaced by WellnessTM and all the products that come with it. Goodbye work-life balance and affordable access to healthcare, hello jade eggs for your nether regions.

This may not be an accident. In Rina Raphael’s book, The Gospel of Wellness: Gyms, Gurus, Goop, and the False Promise of Self-Care, she writes what likely resonates with most of us: “As Americans, we’re strivers.” For some of us there’s just not enough time to fit in rigorous care for our mental health; there’s not a vacation long enough to keep us feeling energized after we get back to work; the best we can hope for is to adopt the mindset that no matter how external factors make us feel, we must stay positive.

It is, after all, a very American mindset. Manifest destiny!

The “positive vibes over all else” mindset is one we see every year around this time (“So glad 2020 / 2016 / 1929 / 536 AD is finally over – this is my year!”) and one that conveniently already has a name: toxic positivity.

If it doesn’t sound familiar, toxic positivity refers to “the act of avoiding, suppressing, or rejecting negative emotions or experiences. This may take the form of denying your own emotions or someone else denying your emotions, insisting on positive thinking instead.” And psychologist Sasha Heinz, Ph.D., MAPP, is quick to point out: toxic positivity is “not positivity at all. It’s just good old-fashioned emotional avoidance, invalidation, and denial.”

“Let’s not focus on the negative,” and “Maybe this is a blessing in disguise,” we hear. But study after study shows that as we try to outwait and outwit our true feelings, we just feel worse and worse. Stanford researchers, for instance, found that the more people tried to stay calm and neutral watching gory medical training videos, the more stressed out they were . . . on the inside, at least. People who were free to grimace and cringe and say “Eww” as much as they wanted were still stressed, just a lot less.

Optimism doesn’t deny unpleasant realities; toxic positivity does.

It’s a strange place to be – the more worn out and negative we feel, the more pressure we feel to be “well.” The more bath bombs we need to drop, the more superfoods we need to eat, the more “Treat Yo’ Self” days we need to take.

Self-care is important – Dan even said so in 1979 – but it’s also important not to put all of our eggs in one basket . . . especially if that basket has an egg-shaped hole in the bottom.

Because if mental wellness is more popular and prominent than it’s ever been before, why do we feel so unwell? In fact, stress levels across the board have been going up, not down, with more than a quarter of adults saying they’re so stressed that they can’t even function. More than a third report getting less than seven hours of sleep every night. And on the whole, diet is getting worse as people turn to quick and affordable processed foods. It seems like the only wellness space not negatively impacted is our sex lives.

In an interview with Salon, Rina Raphael expands on her thought from before. “You don’t see [the wellness] industry telling us to deal with communal solutions or to ask for more support from our government or city plans,” she says. “Instead they say, ‘No, it’s your issue. You need to prioritize yoga’.”

It raises an important question when we’re talking about mental wellness: do we all even agree on what the point of wellness actually is? And if not, then who’s deciding for us?

Is it to feel our best, both physically, mentally, and emotionally – or as Dan Rather put it, “recognizing that health is not simply the absence of disease”? Or is it the pursuit of feeling just well enough to keep doing what we’re already doing whether or not it fits anyone’s criteria for “best”? For too many of us, the idea of mental wellness that we’re sold, and the toxic positivity that comes with it, can feel more like a hamster wheel – hey, it may not get us anywhere, but at least it’s exhausting along the way.

Sometimes the healthiest thing to do is admit, “We need help. We’re unwell.”


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