You Can’t Moisturise Away Depression – The Commodification of Self Care

I live with anxiety and depression. I’m not alone in this with 1 in 4 people experiencing a mental health problem each year. I regularly feel like getting out of bed is an insurmountable task, that I’m drowning in the weight of my failings and that life is hopeless. Sometimes the world is so scary, so fraught with risk, that I’m not sure I can keep myself safe. When I’m in a particularly low ebb, it can feel like I won’t ever get better and I rely on self care to get me through the day, and maintain some amount of wellbeing for other days.

Self care is a difficult, but essential, part of recovery for a lot of people. It isn’t glamorous or hashtag Instagram worthy for the most part. It’s doing the basic things you need to do to survive, and hopefully thrive at some point. It’s getting out of bed, showering, sticking to a treatment plan that works for you (be that therapy or medication or a combination of both), working towards good sleep hygiene, cooking and eating something nutritious, exercising in a way you can and paying your bills. A lot of this might seem pretty easy to a well person, but it’s not. It can be hard but it’s necessary.Two Instagram posts from @makedaisychains from the artist's "boring self-care". On the left is a bed reading "changed my bed sheets" and on the right a heart shaped dinner plate with the words "cooked and ate a nourishing meal"

Self care has become a huge trend on social media, in fact this week is #selfcareweek. Your social timelines are likely to be filled with pictures of people practicing self care, though it might not look like what I just described. Self care has been utilised by brands and influencers who have everything you need to be better…at a price. There is no shortage of companies willing to exploit illness to sell their bath bombs, face masks, cosy blankets and scented candles. Don’t get me wrong, I love all of those things, what I don’t love is that self care is being redefined to be about expensive pampering sessions and products that aren’t going to have the impact they claim.A woman relaxing in a bubble bath surrounded by lit candles

To get a real idea of the problem, let’s look at some of those products, shall we? Goop have a ‘Self Care for the Cubicle-Bound’ kit which promises to “sharpen your wits, improve your mood, and liven up your skin”, for a hefty price tag of £380. If that is too much for you to invest, don’t worry, the combination of “potent, miracle” face oil, cuticle cream, lipstick and dental floss probably wasn’t going to be all that helpful anyway. For the much lower cost of £25.99 you could purchase an Anxiety Kit, but it’s contents of an aromatherapy roller, positive thinking deck and healing crystal are no less problematic.  If a subscription is more your thing, you could pay £38.00 monthly to receive a WILDWOMAN box which claims to be able to make you “live the life you truly desire and deserve” through a book, stationary, crystals and sweet treats.

A selection of brightly coloured cut crystals on a wooden table

As well as hawking chocolates, pretty stationary and beauty products, most of these packages also include the usual pseudoscience culprits. Crystals feature heavily, which makes sense because those who endorse crystals claim they support and heal your body, and can be used in many ways including wearing in a locket, rolling on your face and even inserting inside yourself. However, there remains no scientific evidence that crystals are useful at all. Similarly, aromatherapy products are included in a lot of these self care kits despite there being very little evidence for all the claims made by aromatherapists regarding the various healing properties of oils. With all of that considered, you could be setting yourself back hundreds of pounds to receive a whole heap of nothing useful, and potentially end up feeling worse that it hasn’t worked when you were promised that it would.

If having a bubble bath or taking a nap under a fluffy blanket makes you feel better, great, do that. Taking time to enjoy small pleasures is definitely an aspect of self care, but it isn’t the whole story. Mental health conditions are never going to be cured by having a dewy complexion or wearing a necklace with a phrase of affirmation on it. It’s important we don’t accept that potentially vulnerable people are being peddled luxury (and mostly useless) products in the name of self care. Commodifying recovery isn’t okay and it shouldn’t be a trend we allow to go unchallenged.

 

A photo of Christina Berry-Moorcroft. She is a white woman with dark, curly hair. She is wearing a brightly coloured scarf and bright pink lipstick. Christina Berry-Moorcroft

Christina is a Communications and Fundraising Manager for a dementia carers charity, and Trustee for a women’s refugee and asylum seeker charity. With over a decade of experience in the third sector, and a specialism in campaigns, capacity building and social impact, Christina has worked internationally on issues like global health, hunger, and wealth inequality.  In her spare time she’s an avid bad dancing doer, board game player, city break haver and tea drinker. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @ChrissieBM for political ramblings, mental health honesty and far too many selfies.

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Skeptics with a K: Episode #237

Doctor Who, socialised empathy, an overstuffed walrus, and extreme male brains. Plus indulgent milkshakes, Body Worlds, six hundred thousand babies, and the Living Dead at Manchester Morgue. Excited by cars, it’s Skeptics with a K.

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Can video gaming help save lives?

Gamers get a bad rep in society (no seriously, we did a panel on it at QED) but every year gamers of all kinds get together to do something brilliant: Extra Life. What is Extra Life? It’s a fundraising event started by gamers back in 2008 which has raised over $40 million for children’s hospitals. Each year from November 3rd people all over the world stream marathons of games of all kinds: from video games to Dungeons and Dragons. They do it not for prestige or fake internet points, but to fund lifesaving treatments for sick kids.

A blue background with a family (two parents, two kids, two grandparents) playing a board game. Over is white lettering saying "game day is November 3!" and the Extra Life logo with the tagline "play games, heal kids" plus the logo for the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals'"

MSS have never been involved with Extra Life before, but this year more than any other it’s something I feel strongly about so I reached out. Why?

On April 28th a little boy named Alfie Evans passed away from an untreatable, progressive neuro-degenerative disorder. If you’re a layman like me, translation: he was born with a rare genetic disorder that affected his brain and got worse over time. You may have heard of Alfie Evans, probably not for the excellent work of the doctors and nurses who treated him during his 18 month stay in the ICU at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital here in Liverpool, but for the extended legal case between Alfie’s parents and Alder Hey which dominated the news in the early part of this year.

You can read more about the case all over the internet, but it is an unfortunate example of where religious agenda, poor media reporting and pseudoscience can harm not only patients; but hospitals and scientific institutions who become embroiled in their controversy. It is estimated that Alder Hey Children’s Hospital spent over £145,000 in legal fees during the case which concluded that continued life support was ‘unkind and inhumane’, and with pediatric ICU beds costing the NHS around £2000 per day that could amount to an additional £250,000 during the time where Alfie was kept on ventilators against doctors advice.

However, people’s lives are worth more than money: and the most heartbreaking thing about this case was not the NHS funds that could have been used elsewhere but the unnecessary suffering endured by Alfie himself, the exploitation of Alfie’s parents grief and the abuse of Alder Hey staff at the hands of misinformed protesters dubbed ‘Alfies Army’. My thoughts go out to Alfie’s parents, the families of seriously ill children everywhere, and I stand in solidarity with the medical professionals who work bravely and tirelessly each day to do what is objectively best for their patients. Even in the face of hostility from media and misguided public opinion.

A photo of Alder Hey Children's Hospital - the hospital was recently redesigned and rebuilt using ideas from children. Two of the blocks of windows are surrounded by coloured tiling and the roof is curved and sloped.

Alder Hey Children’s Hospital

So this year for Extra Life MSS are kindly donating £250 to Alder Hey, thank you! November 3rd has come and gone, but it’s not too late to join in by donating yourself, or watching and supporting an Extra Life stream to see what all this gamer stuff is about.

A photo of Lana's face. Lana is white with blondish red, straight hair just past her shoulders. She's wearing a black top and smokey dark eye make up. She is looking at the camera and smiling.

Lana Donaghy

Lana Donaghy is a former games developer and professional video gamer: spending years questing through Azeroth, competing with some of the world’s top World of Warcraft players. These days Lana works in software development and is still a devoted gamer who loves esports. If you want to read more of her ramblings and obscure video game jargon or see pictures of her cat you should check out her twitter @lanadonaghy

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Skeptics with a K: Episode #236

Fur envy oil, the Goop medical bag, Vitamin A, and what happened in Australia. Plus Kangaroos, Finnish coasters, and perfume flavoured sweets. Avoiding polar bear liver, it’s Skeptics with a K.

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Be Reasonable: Episode #056 – Martin Liedtke

This month, Marsh is joined by Martin Liedtke from Flat Earth British, to talk conspiracy theories, symbolism and the truth of the Flat Earth.

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All the plastic ever made, still exists – where does it go?

Stories on the environmental impact of plastics, particularly on the marine environment, have been all over the news, of late. Harrowing tales of the impacts on charismatic creatures like whales, sea turtles, seabirds, and even adorable seal pups are regularly published, and a recent BBC documentary showcased the scale of the problem. The attention has helped foster policy momentum, and 2018 has seen the launch of the EU Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy, with the aim that all plastics will be recyclable or compostable by 2030, as well as global environmental policy and action. Domestically there have been a range of initiatives, including the UK Plastics Pact, in which businesses, government and NGOs have agreed to a series of ambitious targets by 2025. At the same time, some organisations like the British Plastics Federation, a manufacturing trade body, have argued that plastics are not actually bad for the environment, and that banning single use plastics or requiring the use of alternative plastics could actually harm the environment and people (e.g. through additional carbon emissions). Marine plastics, they argue, are a problem with a foreign source, citing a statistic from a recent Ellen MacArthur Foundation report that 98% of this waste comes from outside the United States and Europe.

Ellen Macarthur Foundation infographic shows that US and Europe only contribute 2% of ocean leakage of plastic

So does this mean that all this action on plastics will have unintended consequences? And can we in Europe and America feel ethically superior, absolving ourselves of responsibility for dealing with this global environmental challenge? That would be really handy considering that plastic seems to be lurking everywhere, even in surprising places like tea bags, clothing and tyres. I covered these issues in a segment on a recent episode of Skeptics with a K, and we also discussed them on a plastics panel at the recent QED conference. But for those keen to do more reading, I am writing a 2-part blog post addressing two key questions: 1) who is responsible for this problem, and 2) what harm do plastics alternatives cause? Today I will focus on responsibility.

A sketch by @Kemp_Matt of the QED panel: Re-use of Refuse: the facts about single use plastics

A sketch by Matt Kemp of the QED panel: Re-use of Refuse: the facts about single use plastics

Whose leakage?

Most marine plastics pollution originates on land. Estimates of how much plastic waste is produced outside of the US and EU as a proportion vary, but it is true that most of the countries with mismanaged plastics waste are outside of these areas (although the US is #20 of the top 20). A paper in Science and research by the Ocean Conservancy found that China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam are dumping more plastic into oceans than the rest of the world combined (55-60%).  While that may seem to support the idea that we don’t have responsibility, these statistics hide a few important issues.

That number above is known as “leakage”, a term referring to unmanaged plastics waste that reaches the ocean. It would not differentiate between domestically generated waste and waste imported from other countries. In reality, those “leakage” numbers could also include US and EU waste. A recent article in Science Advances, states that OECD countries have been exporting 70% of their plastics waste to China, with an estimated 45% of all plastics recycling being imported by China since 1992. Not all of that gets recycled, and much of it actually contributes to that leakage. That’s because China is not just the top country for plastic recycling, but also top of the global list for mismanaging their plastic waste. But in 2017 they passed their “National Sword Policy”, which bans imports of plastics waste, as well as tightening up the rules on permissible levels of contamination in recycling imports. While it is too early for us to know the impact of this ban, it is reportedly causing waste to pile up in the US and so far it seems Europe and America are instead exporting waste to other countries with high leakage rates. It may be that this will lead to more innovation and better strategies to deal with waste within our own borders. But for now, when we refer to this waste as their leakage, we are neglecting the fact that we are partially responsible for it. This does not mean that we shouldn’t advocate (and support) improvements in waste management in countries with high levels of leakage, but it does suggest that we have an ethical obligation to act domestically as well.

Whose responsibility?

Responsibility for the plastics pollution problem is not just about leakage, but also about consumption, both historic and contemporary. The best estimate we have so far, from research in the journal Science Advances, is that only 9% of the plastics have been recycled since mass production began 60 years ago. Plastics can take hundreds of years to degrade, so that means all of the plastic that has been made still exists. Nearly all the plastics you have ever used still exist in some form, which is a sobering thought, really.

There is also a massive discrepancy between per capita plastic waste generation. The average European person produces 31 kg of plastic waste per year according to Eurostat [insert infographic]. This dwarfs plastic waste generation rates for the countries where leakage rates are high, but where consumption is low and per capita waste generation may be just 10% of the average American or European. As the infographic from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation earlier demonstrates, the US and Europe are home to the headquarters of the vast majority of companies producing consumer goods for which these plastics are made.

An infographic from Eurostat and statista charts shows that EU citizens generate between 30 and 39kg plastic waste per year in almost all EU countries

Ultimately, I think an adaptation of the “common but differentiated responsibility” principle is relevant here. This principle is based on notions of fairness and has been used since the dawn of global climate change policy. It recognises that historic and cumulative emissions disproportionately came from a small handful of countries, acknowledges that the world’s most developed economies have more resources to combat climate change, and encourages the world’s poorest countries to focus first on poverty eradication.

Policy Solutions

When it comes to plastics, this doesn’t mean that we don’t do anything about the ongoing problems with leakage in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, and we have already seen China and other countries taking action. Fostering circular economies in these countries can also bring benefits to per capita GDP and living conditions in those countries. This is where the “common” aspect of this principle comes in.

While in Asia the focus should be on improved waste management infrastructure and practices, in Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand, the solutions will need to focused on reduced consumption and alternatives to conventional plastics. There is plenty of research on “willingness to pay” that suggests consumers are willing to pay a premium for products that are more sustainable or even pay a tax on single use plastics. In the UK, the Treasury found that there is high support for taxing single use plastics at the point of sale, and there are plans to complement tax reform with changes to manufacturing.

Bans of specific products such as straws are already happening and spreading across the globe. Bans have already been flagged as problematic for disabled people. We also need to be careful not to create a black market, as happened with plastic bags in Rwanda or in relation to other products, like incandescent bulbs. It’s important to point out that no one is actually calling for the ban of all plastics. One suggestion from a consortium of environmental groups on the Treasury’s consultation was that policy interventions be targeted according to a hierarchy considering the necessity of the product and the necessity of including plastic. Their categories were “pointless”, “replaceable”, “problem”, “harder to replace” and “essential”. There can also be exemption for certain uses and/or for certain groups.

Plastics are arguably among the most transformative innovations of the 20th century; and despite their potential ills, they have also made our lives better in many ways. They are also probably here to stay. The question now is how we reduce their use, reduce the harm caused by their production and disposal, provide viable alternatives, and ultimately transition to a circular economy. In my next blog post on the topic, I will turn to the question of alternatives and whether their use could have unintended consequences.

 

Dr Sarah Clement

Sarah is a faculty member in the Department of Geography and Planning within the School of Environmental Science at the University of Liverpool. Her research focuses on environmental governance, science-based policy, and nature-based solutions. She is particularly interested in how reforming policy and practice can enable better ecological, socio-economic, and democratic outcomes, particularly during periods of rapid environmental and social change.  Sarah has worked in the field of environmental science and policy for 16 years as an environmental consultant, researcher, and environmental policy advisor in Australia, the UK, and the USA. She is also on the board of the Merseyside Skeptics Society. She spends most of her spare time hiking in nature, travelling, lifting heavy things, adoring her cat, and documenting all of these in pictures. She tweets as @DrSarahClement, and posts said pictures on IG @umsfromumbridge.

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