Opinion | ‘Self-care’ vs. self-care — two very different ways of taking care of yourself

By Juliana Morello, Staff Columnist

It’s nearing the end of October and midterms are upon us. The sun is setting earlier, yet we’re staying up later. Suffice it to say, the pressure is on. 

It’s always a challenge to balance school with other obligations, and adding cold weather mixed with harsher deadlines makes it even harder. It’s about the time when more students are sacrificing bits of sleep to cram for upcoming exams, or skipping meals because they’re too busy finishing up an assignment for a class they have in a half hour. But don’t get me wrong, I’m not judging — I’ve been there more times than I can count — which is why as the stress picks up, it’s so important people know how to take care of themselves. 

When you’re busy worrying about exams and presentations, it can be a bit challenging to pay enough attention to your mental health. It’s easy to push it aside, especially when you have so much in front of you. When this happens, though, the last thing you want is for it to catch up when you’re least expecting. 

The thing about stress is that it doesn’t typically get better on its own. But when you take care of your mental health, you increase your energy levels and can even reduce the risk of illness.

So, how do we properly take care of our mental health? You’ve definitely heard the mainstream self-care ideas before. Light a scented candle. Put on a face mask. Break in a new coloring book. If you ask the internet, the media or an Instagram post from the William Pitt Union account for ideas, you’ll be met with suggestions like knitting a scarf or baking a cake — all very cute, autumnal suggestions, but also very surface-level “solutions.” 

Especially during exam season, you hear people talk about self-care like it’s something you do once in a while to take a load off. People think they’ll be judged if they talk about their real mental health struggles as if it’s a weakness, so they do what they can while avoiding the overall conversation. Going for a walk, drinking some tea — these are things people spin as quick fixes for stress or burnout, without addressing the underlying problems. This is part of the stigma surrounding mental health — but mental health is no different from physical health in terms of its importance and its impact on the self.

October is Mental Health Awareness at Pitt. Although it’s typically celebrated in May, this whole month Pitt holds various activities and events for students to attend, ranging from arts and crafts to a forum dissecting internalized racism. 

A green banner across the front of the William Pitt Union advertising October as Mental Health Awareness Month says, “Let’s Talk.” An entire month dedicated to students’ health is a great way to get the ball rolling, but the stigma still exists on and off campus. Though it’s easier to discuss mental health now than ever before, due to increased awareness and the normalization of mental health struggles, there is still so much work to do. Opening up the discussion is crucial, and students need real solutions for their stress and anxiety, not just suggestions to treat themselves.

The self-care industry makes a fortune off of other people’s stress, literally, without considering the repercussions. Self-care emerged as a buzzword within the past few years, and, unsurprisingly, Google searches for self-care ideas peaked during the pandemic. It’s important to note that while the self-care industry rakes in its own small fortune — $10 billion annually — it often overlaps with the beauty industry, which generates over $100 billion annually around the world. This is where your jade rollers, bath bombs and skincare products come in. To Big Beauty — yes, I made that up — self-care is soaking in a bubble bath with one of the thousands of soaps, lotions and bath salts. Anything that can be marketed to you as something that will help you relax — that’s self-care.

Or, at least, that’s the self-care that’s being sold to you. Audre Lorde, poet and civil rights activist, originally coined the term “self-care” during the 1980s in order to explain the relationship between oneself and their community. According to Lorde, self-care isn’t selfish because it’s self-preservation, which can be considered “political warfare.” Unshockingly, consumerism appropriated this concept and spun it as something that happens when you spend your money on products that will — definitely, I promise! — cure your mental illness.

My point is, the self-care we’re familiar with is not the self-care we all need. Look, if all you need to do this fall break, in the midst of midterms, to better your mental health is to take a walk or declutter for the winter, I’m all for it. I mean, I’ve gone on my fair share of “Hot Girl Walks” through Schenley — the foliage is really beautiful right about now — and sometimes some fresh air is all you need to clear your head and get you back on track. Self-care comes in many forms, and it’s important to acknowledge that it looks different for different people.

But, and I mean this in the nicest way possible, sometimes it’s not as wholesome as sitting in the sun and reading a book. Sometimes, actual self-care is a lot harder. Sometimes it’s going to therapy, or having difficult conversations with your friends, family and maybe even your professors. A lot of the time, it’s taking your medications consistently, or being really, really honest with yourself about what you need and starting to think about how to take care of yourself. It’s calling your best friend back home to vent — or maybe just to cry — and then wiping your tears away and planning your next move. It’s being stressed about midterms but going to bed instead, or, maybe for you, it’s dragging yourself out of bed — even though it’s the last thing in the world you want to do — because you’ve been sleeping for 12 hours.

Self-care can be anything from meal planning for the week to just throwing a granola bar in your bag on your way out the door so you have something other than just an iced coffee for breakfast. It doesn’t have to be huge. More than anything, self-care is about being kind to yourself.

I know, I know, I’m preaching. I understand that for some people, sometimes even just brushing their teeth can seem like an impossible task. I don’t pretend that my little column on self-care will cure your depression — or mine. But I want to emphasize that the idea of self-care, meaning treating yourself every once in a while instead of keeping in touch with your mental and physical health, can be harmful. 

In the words of Tom Haverford and Donna Meagle, “Treat Yo Self.” But, acknowledge that you’re treating yourself. Nearly as important as taking part in self-care is recognizing that, as much as you deserve to be mentally and physically healthy, you also deserve to be happy. Do what you need to do, but make sure it’s not under the guise of self-care. We need to open up the conversation and support each other despite the stigma against mental health.

So… let’s talk. But let me light a candle real quick.


Juliana Morello writes about whatever’s on her mind. Follow her on Instagram @juliana.morello or write to her at [email protected]