Ending “Busy”: Feminism, Mental Health, and Student Self-Care

Trigger warning for discussions of mental health and related subjects, including suicide.

There is one subject that Carolina students—and specifically Carolina students involved in feminist and/or social justice extracurricular work—consistently spend more time talking about than any other. It’s not “accessibility.” It’s not even “innovation,” although that concept has been repeated to the point of near-meaninglessness.

I’m talking specifically about “group agreements”—the set of guidelines for productive discussion and debate established before nearly every meeting in which controversial and potentially triggering topics might be discussed. Any student who has participated in One Act, Carolina United, Safe Zone, or any similar program should be very familiar with group agreements, which often include generalized values like respecting others and using “I” statements.

One popular addition to the set of group agreements in recent years has been “self-care,” a concept developed by feminist theorists and professional care workers to refer to the strategies by which we care for ourselves, in whatever way that works for us individually.

On the surface, many feminist and social justice organizations have embraced this concept of self-care as a facet of their work, often by including a cursory reminder of self-care within the group agreements portion of meetings, workshops, and trainings. In practice, this might look like facilitators encouraging participants to step out of the room if a topic is intolerably painful or triggering, to drink plenty of water during the session, to take breaks as needed, and so on.

These are vital discussions and reminders of self-care we have in feminist spaces, but are they enough? Indeed, in a social and political culture that compromises the self-love and well-being of women, people of color, poor people, queer folks, students, people with disabilities, and everyone that lives at the intersection of these identities on a daily basis, can a simple nod to self-care every so often by feminists be enough to truly sustain us? How can we embody self-care not only as a group agreement at meetings but also as a guiding ethic at the very center of our work—in short, how can we practice what we preach?

For the past week I’ve seen student organizations including ReThink Psychiatric Illness, Stigma-Free Carolina, and Active Minds raising awareness of mental health issues around campus in honor of Mental Health Awareness Week, which is celebrated during the first full week of every October. These groups have done profound work this week to highlight the ways people living with mental illness engage in acts of resistance and struggle—particularly the specific challenges college students with mental illness often face

Recent surveys of college students have found that 50% of those surveyed rated their mental health below average or poor, and 30% reported having problems with completing school work due to a mental health issue. Likewise, contrary to popular claims that college has “always” been an environment with stable levels of stress over time, research shows that five times as many students in 2007 met or surpassed clinical cutoffs in one or more mental health categories as compared with students who took the measure several years ago. Sadly, the epidemic of mental illness in college students is increasingly leading to the deadliest of consequences- suicide is currently the second most common cause of death among college students.

So, yes, we have a mental health problem on our campus. But what does that have to do with how we think about self-care as feminist students?

It matters because the campus culture we reaffirm when we demonize self-care—when we constantly brag about spending all-nighters studying at the library, when we assess our worth (and the worth of others) by the amount of personal time or time at home we (or they) neglect, when we wear our exhaustion and refusal to ask for help and time off as badges of honor—we become complicit in a culture that is literally killing our friends, our peers, and ourselves by discouraging all of us from accessing resources when we need them and from practicing the self-care needed to survive physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Feminist writers and organizers teach us that the “personal is political,” and as such the barriers we face to caring for ourselves must be viewed as a deeply political, rather than incidentally personal, problem. As feminists we must ensure that we are not only calling out the institutional pressures that make self-care next-to-impossible to practice, but we must also ensure that we are challenging the culture of self-care shaming as it seeps into our movement spaces, conversations, and relationships with other feminists.

In his iconic New York Times editorial, “The Busy Trap,” author Tim Krieger calls out this culture of “busy” that shames practices of self-care and time away from work, emphasizing the role of idle self-care time as a necessity of living: “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

Starting this Mental Health Awareness Week and beyond, let’s challenge our fellow feminists and students to disrupt the “culture of busy” that prevents us from the most important work we can ever do—the work of caring deeply for ourselves. Let’s call out campus institutions and power structures that make comprehensive self-care impossible, that bombard us on a daily basis with messages telling us we must constantly produce more in order to “overcome” the identities we hold. Let’s smash the usage of “busy” as a sign of being a “good feminist” or an “excellent student” and name it for what it truly is—a toxic barrier to living the full lives we are entitled to as human beings.