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Has the $1.8 trillion Wellness Industry commodified mental wellbeing?

Commodified = to treat or consider something as a commodity (= a product can that be bought or sold)

More than ever, we are prioritising our health. Rooted in this desire for optimisation, an economy has flourished, and relatively quickly at that. Wellness has become a trillion-dollar industry offering a range of products and services on a constant conveyor belt; from biometric rings, vitamins, supplements and juices, infrared saunas, mindfulness apps, and aesthetic products, wellness products come in all shapes and sizes. And that’s not even scratching the surface. A dedicated sector for mental wellness is one of the fastest growing, alongside our awareness of our mental health and wellbeing.


Personally, I like to dip my toe into the wellness waters. It doesn’t take much for me to add immunity shots to my weekly food shop, or to pop an all-frills skincare product in my online basket. There’s something I find satisfying investing in the idea of a ‘better’, ‘healthier’ you – even if it does come at the expense of your bank balance. Sometimes you (or at least I) just can’t resist.


The wellness industry is selling you the myth that a healthy lifestyle is expensive’ reads a headline from the Guardian in 2020, proving that the industry is not without its critics. ‘Wellbeing is presented as complicated, complex, difficult to achieve correctly and best when purchased – all the while requiring gurus to access it, the journalist pens. But yet, it doesn’t exist in a silo. If it weren’t for consumer interest, surely there would not be quite so much success.


While personally, I don’t quite relate to the Guardian journalist’s ‘existential pain’ surrounding modern-day ‘wellbeing’, I completely understand the sentiment behind the statement – wellbeing has become somewhat of a product despite the concepts’ existence when you strip it away from the business lens.


It begs the question, is the hunger for consumerism and company profit just tapping into the proverbial saying that ‘prevention is better than cure’, or is there really a role for the industry in our wellness? With a dedicated sector, do we have to buy our way to better mental wellbeing?


What is mental wellness anyway?


‘Wellness’, often used interchangeably with ‘wellbeing’, is the state of being healthy, especially when actively trying to achieve it, moving towards optimisation.


The concept of wellness is nowhere near as new as the industry, with the Global Wellness Industry perfectly describing that ‘wellness is a modern word with ancient roots’. And ancient roots indeed – the earliest records of the idea go as far back as Ayurveda in 3000-1500 B.C, a holistic system of medicine from India focussed on improving health or maintaining it. Traditional Chinese Medicine, ancient Greece and Rome also reflect these principles of working towards prevention rather than cure.


Mental wellness itself doesn’t have one set definition but is generally about how we feel and the ability to cope with daily life. According to the Global Wellness Institute, where the industry places its role in mental wellness, is helping with ways of coping with everyday challenges such as stress, burnout, loneliness and sadness outside of clinical (psychological and psychiatric) care.

Products and services in this sector appear to offer mindfulness guidance in the forms of apps, sleep supplements, tech for tracking mood, movement and sleep, supplements and aromatherapy-based products, to name a few.

 

But is this needed? Well, the short answer is no, not really.


Criticisms of the industry tend to lean on the fact that a healthy lifestyle can be basic and stripped back – healthy nutrition, daily movement, avoiding substances, and getting sufficient sleep. And this is valid. ‘Mind’, a prominent mental health charity, provides tips to help improve mental wellbeing including trying to relax and reduce stress, spending time in nature, looking after your physical health, and improving sleep. Most of these should, and I emphasise the word ‘should’ for a reason, be readily available to all, rather than a product to be purchased as a consumer. Unfortunately, there are still obstacles creating barriers to improving things such as physical health with billions of people being unable to afford to eat healthily, an alarming consideration beyond the realm of the Wellness Industry.


That mental wellness is personal and subjective is acknowledged in the industry, but the products offered can’t necessarily account for the degree of personalisation involved in achieving an individual’s mental well-being and many factors, such as adequate nutrition, are far beyond its scope. Mental health hinges on several individual, social, and structural determinants varying throughout life and acting as either risk or protective factors. While some of the individual determinants such as emotional skills can be a target for change, others such as genetics cannot, and some of the more social and structural determinants such as poverty, inequality and environmental deprivation require systemic change – not a product to be purchased or trialled. While this isn’t a lesson or criticism of the industry (they certainly don’t try and sell a solution to all these determinants), it is a point to be made of the narrative surrounding it.


An exclusionary wellness club?


Labelling it an exclusionary wellness club may be a little extreme but, it’s important to realise that accessing the Wellness Industry, requires you to be in a relative position of privilege. It’s a point I wanted to make when I commented on my own privileged occasional splurge on an immunity shot or skincare product, but it seemed too early to mention. I recognise that I am fortunate to be able to do this, and unfortunately, this is not the case for everyone.


It seems to me that the narrative is the most important point of consideration here: it’s important to avoid dictating that buying into mental wellness is essential as this isolates a huge amount of the population. The fundamentals of mental wellness are simple (in theory); anything you want to do beyond this is optional and fine so long as you have the choice. Mindfulness practices are a great example of this. The app ‘Headspace’ (not an ad) is probably one of the better-known options for such a service on the market. Claiming to be ‘the most science-backed meditation app’, they boast stats such as a 32% decrease in stress after 30 days and a 22% increase in focus following a single session. There’s certainly not an issue in opting for this kind of benefit if you can. However, there are also lots of free resources to help teach and guide mindfulness practices which are more freely available (although it is important to note that Headspace is free to download however, some content lies behind a paywall).

 

In my opinion, mental wellness, and wellness in general, hasn’t necessarily been commodified, so long as the narrative doesn’t lead us to believe it is something we have to invest in financially. There’s no apparent large, evil, money-making scheme aiming to scam us all out of our hard-earned money. From a very naïve stance, there’s no profit without desire, and the Wellness Industry feeds that appetite with no ill intention. But making it clear that the products and services are somewhat of a luxury is essential. The risk, so clearly pointed out by the Guardian journalist, is that wellbeing is made to sound complicated and hard to achieve, and this should not be how it is portrayed.


There’s certainly an argument (or a few) to be made about the narratives selling the products, and possibly even the scientific validity of some of what’s being rolled out. But with so much to say on the topic, perhaps that’s best saved for another article.

3 comentários


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attention dialogue
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That's just the tip of phrazle the iceberg. Along with our increased knowledge of our own mental health and welfare, one of the fastest growing industries is devoted to mental wellness.

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