Advertising and the World of Well-Being
“Self-care is empowering!” said the sign. I nodded as I drove past—yes, self-care is fundamental to our viability as human beings, as lawyers, and in all of the roles we fill in our busy lives. And we need to be empowered in order to do all the complex and multitudinous things that we do. I smiled as I thought about the message all the way into the office.
But I saw the sign again on my drive home. “Self-care is empowering” it still said. But then I noticed that the sign, of course, was an ad, and the business sponsoring this messaging was a tanning salon.
This is a common issue in the well-being world. Some organizations, like Assist, have well-being mandates focused on evidence-based mental and physical health challenges and treatment. Other organizations, like the tanning salon in my neighbourhood, use well-being (or wellness) terminology to capitalize on people’s insecurities in order to sell their (unscientific) products.
So, what is self-care? According to the World Health Organization, self-care is:
the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a health worker.
It involves agency, that we are involved in our own proactive strategies to enhance our health.
And what, exactly, is “empowerment?” Empowerment has different definitions, depending on context. But in the context of one’s self, as in self-empowerment as opposed to the granting of power to a third party, let’s use this definition:
the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one's life and claiming one's rights.
We all need a bit of pampering from time to time—and I am in no position to judge anyone based on how they get what they need in terms of personal care—but artificial tanning uses ultraviolet radiation which can cause skin cancer. It is hard to see how it is related to promoting and maintaining health, preventing disease, and coping with physical health challenges. I am sure that if I search enough dictionaries, I will find one that offers the “whatever you want it to be” definition that the self-care industry would like us to use.
And how does having an artificially-created tan allow an individual to become stronger and more-confident? Only in a superficial and beauty-myth world is having tanned skin linked to confidence.
Now I grimace when I pass the sign.
I truly believe that self-care can lead to empowerment. But self-care has nothing to do with products or services that you purchase, and empowerment has nothing to do with confidence built through artificial appearances.
As a society, we need to help individuals to identify what they need for self-care and then to access appropriate resources.
Which brings me to another great advertising self-care myths, Blue Monday. Blue Monday was created by a British travel agency in 2005 to encourage people to book vacations to beat the winter blues, citing what is generally considered to be a pseudoscientific formula supposedly determining that the most depressing day of the year is the third Monday in January. The formula cited factors as short days with low daylight, the arrival of post-holiday credit card bills and a sense of loss after holiday get-togethers. It sounds credible so people believed it (although with the third Monday falling so early this year that I haven’t received my credit card bills yet!)
But here is the thing. Depression is not a one-day condition, and while a vacation may help relieve symptoms of work-induced burnout, a vacation does not “cure” or “treat” depression. Indeed, quick fixes like retail therapy do not work, either, and I have the credit card receipts to prove that. Suggesting quick fixes like vacations may cause people to delay seeking proven treatment modalities like professional counselling and medical interventions, causing actual harm.
But while Blue Monday is a myth, Seasonal Affective Disorder is real. It is a DSM-5 diagnosis which the American Psychiatric Association states is likely caused by chemical imbalances:
SAD has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain prompted by shorter daylight hours and less sunlight in winter. As seasons change, people experience a shift in their biological internal clock or circadian rhythm that can cause them to be out of step with their daily schedule. SAD is more common in people living far from the equator where there are fewer daylight hours in the winter
Sometimes, symptoms of SAD are also symptoms of other physiological issues, like hypothyroidism, hypoglycemia, and viral infections. Would you tell someone with hypothyroidism to just take a sunny holiday? As a person with hypothyroidism, I can attest to the similarity between depression and hypothyroidism—both have a feeling of torpor that can make you think something is sitting on your chest making even breathing more challenging. When I find myself saying that I feel like a slug, I know that I may need to get my thyroid hormone levels checked as they do change from time to time. We should not discount feelings of fatigue, torpor or depression just because they fall on a particular day in January!
If you feel blue, or excessively exhausted in January—or at any other time of the year—please call your family doctor or the Assist counselling office (1-877-498-6898.). Mood changes should not be downplayed any day of the year, and if you think you may be in crisis, please call our 24/7 crisis line (1-877-498-6898 and press 0 once the automated system picks up your call.)
Not all ad campaigns about well-being are bad! The Bell Let’s Talk campaign is on January 25th. Whatever you think of Bell as a telecommunications provider—I have never been a customer—they are doing a service to Canadians with this campaign in which they donate money to mental health organizations per social media post. Getting people talking about mental health, and how common mental health challenges are, is important, but they are also supporting some incredible initiatives to battle stigma and raise awareness about suicide.
And I have a favourite current TV commercial. It is the one that features young children saying what they want to be when they grow up—astronauts, dancers, whatever, until one child says, “drug addict.” The point is that addiction is not a choice.
In my mind, I see a bunch of shiny law school graduates in their convocation robes being asked what they want to do with their law careers. One may say that they want to argue constitutional cases at the Supreme Court of Canada, and one may say that they want to close multi-billion dollar corporate transactions, while another might say that they are going to fight for the disenfranchised in our society. None of them will say “alcoholic” or “drug addict” but we know that it happens all too often in our profession, and not by choice.
Advertising and media campaigns that fight mental health stigma, educate us that addiction is not a choice, and that lead us to evidence-based supports are good. But ones that minimize well-being into superficial values or that promote easy fixes do harm. Let’s continue to send the message that mental health and substance use challenges are endemic in our profession, that they are real, and that they are not choices. Let’s educate our peers about the excellent organizations that help lawyers and other Canadians improve their well-being. And let’s call out the advertisers and media that promote unhelpful “treatments” and tropes.
This is empowerment—we learn about a challenge, how to address it, unite around a call to action, and we draw strength and confidence from doing good work together. If we need a bit of self-care when we feel worn out or down, we can access quality health and mental health resources, including those designed specifically for our profession like Assist—and sometimes we do something a bit self-indulgent because (but hopefully not in a carcinogenic way!