Therapy is All the Rage...But Not All Mental Healthcare Is Created Equal
As our societal awareness of mental health has grown, so too has an industry focused on selling us the best ways to take care of our psychological needs. Most bookstores now have entire sections dedicated to self-care, personal growth, and mental wellness, each offering a unique and easily digested version of the best way to treat the mind. By browsing the titles, you would think that the secret to cognitive bliss is just $17.99 away. But if that were the case, why do we have so many different books?
Last week, I had the chance to read two books, each with a unique examination of how we can better care for our mental health. While I didn’t set out to read them in parallel with one another, Whitney Goodman’s Toxic Positivity and Niro Feliciano’s This Book Won’t Make You Happy were far more interesting in conversation with one another, especially in the areas in which they disagreed.
Both writers are practicing therapists who draw on their work with their patients to make claims about the best ways to engage with therapy and psychology. But in many ways, This Book Won’t Make You Happy was exactly the kind pop-psychology that Goodman was critical of in her own book. While both offered worthy insight into the ways we, as human beings, are plagued by the challenging context of a society that prioritizes commerce over compassion, Toxic Positivity did a much better job of cutting through the jargon that so often makes well-being a distant idea. In our attempts to live better lives, we feel compelled to force ourselves into blind optimism in ways that feel both inauthentic and ineffective. As a result, we do a poor job of taking care of our own needs, while also failing to be worthy supporters of those we love.
Feliciano opened her book with one of the most compelling anecdotes of any personal growth book I’ve come across: she describes a dinner at which she and her husband admit that, though their lives have all of the ingredients for success, they simply can’t keep living with the levels of stress and pressure that have become their normal lives. She paints an incredible picture that would seem appropriate for so very many couples in America today. But from there, Feliciano draws somewhat rudimentary conclusions about how to engage with ongoing mental health care, while applying the kind of personal opinion that dances the line between individually evocative and self-directed to the point of inaccessibility. It was especially when she discussed her faith that it became clear that this was a book about how she experiences mental health, rather than how we, the reader, should. A therapist shouldn’t put that much of themselves into their sessions, which Feliciano thoughtfully mentions; it just seems that she wrote this book to let off some of those extra feelings.
There are so many books that claim to have the answer to all that is wrong in your life, and it can be intoxicating to read them all and imagine the ways you can make improvements to bring that best version of yourself into the world. But not all self-help books are, well, helpful, and these two books show two ends of the spectrum. In both cases, the writing is thoughtful, articulate, and well-researched; there is no question that both are worthy therapists who are giving the best of themselves to help care for others. But there is a reason that not every therapist gets a book deal. At a time when getting good, accurate help is as hard to find as ever, cutting through the noise of too many works can be just as much a part of the problem as the solution.