The Problem with ‘Mindfulness’ Consumerism

Emma Harrison

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I have started to notice that almost every time I leave my house these days, I stumble across some form of marketing display crammed full of the new “in” thing: ‘mindfulness colouring books for grown-ups’. I snorted to myself as I stumbled across one particular title a few days ago: The Mindless Violence Colouring Book from Modern Toss. “Perhaps this a bit more representative of what’s actually going on in everyone’s heads”, I thought cynically to myself.

Earlier in the week, I’d been scrolling through Facebook to find a series of personalised ads telling me to subscribe to online counselling, or to buy a new ‘self-help’ starter kit from new mental health businesses such as the Blurt Foundation. Got a friend who’s depressed? Cheer them up with this thoughtful box of pre-packaged ‘mindfulness’ treats! Are you depressed? Buy one for yourself!

After going through several spurts of anxiety, panic disorder and depression over the past five years, I have become reasonably well acquainted with the concept of ‘mindfulness’, having been pointed in that direction by a series of doctors and counsellors. ‘Mindfulness’ is a therapeutic technique, whereby one achieves a calm and undistracted mental state by applying focus to something in the present moment. It draws on physiological traditions rooted in Buddhism, but is now used in non-secular practices in the West.

From personal experience, I can certainly vouch for its benefits: reluctant to become dependent on medication for a series of mental health problems that seemed to be persistently in flux, mindfulness as a form of self-help seemed like a far preferable option for keeping me afloat. And indeed, in a culture that places heavy emphasis on working on one’s physical health, it seems only logical that we too take time to look after our mental health.

However, I can’t help but feeling as though something has gone amiss somewhere. While the abundance of self-help products available on todays market is, in some ways, indicative of the notion that we are finally growing more accepting of mental illness as a culture, it seems as though the first arena to grasp this idea fully by the throat is the consumer market. Everywhere I look now, I’m stumbling across new ways in which mental illness is being profited from.

On the one hand, perhaps this the only way in which we can respond – with austerity cuts to NHS mental health services instigating an “unsolvable crisis”, maybe these commodified remedies are the only solution in our current climate. And while colouring books may be an accessible gateway into ‘mindfulness’, I have begun to start asking myself if we’re wading into dangerous waters in dressing up mental wellbeing as a purchasable asset.

In refracting mindfulness through the lens of consumerism, is it not simply becoming embroiled in the quick-fix neoliberal paradigm that encompasses the rest of our culture? Is it really helping, or is it just whitewashing the issues at stake through providing tangible, buyable objects that allow us to reason ‘I’m helping myself’, or ‘I’m making progress’? Should we not be asking ourselves why there is suddenly a booming market for consumer goods dressed up in the name of ‘mindfulness’?

While I am by no means insinuating that it is a bad thing to dedicate time to looking after ones mental health, I can’t help feeling that we are losing sight of the very notion of ‘applying focus to the present moment’ by constantly scrambling for the next ‘mindfulness’ gizmo to throw money at. It’s like the very concept of ‘mindfulness’ is becoming a contradictory mishmash of ‘focusing on the present moment’ and snatching the next consumer-enabled dopamine hit.

The glittery exteriors of these mindfulness trinkets are masking a much deeper seated problem: that there is a stark lack of help available, and we’re desperate for other options to help keep us afloat. But the solutions shouldn’t be coming from market moguls dishing out quick-fix consumer items: we need better mental health services, unions, and more attempts at destigmatisation from outside of the consumer sphere. Depression is not cured with a goodie-box.