Why Improving Our Mental Health Shouldn’t Be a Quest for Perfection

Speaking of social media, these wellness posts can compound the problem. On Instagram and TikTok, wellness influencers model elaborate, multi-step morning routines, featuring hours of journaling, yoga, meditation, and other activities meant to improve mental health. Even when it’s not intended, the takeaway is often that if you try hard enough, you can solve your own mental health problems.

This message of perfectionism is replicated in wellness tech, which is becoming more popular with younger generations. Meditation apps give prizes for perfect “streaks,” and fitness trackers encourage users to hit daily metrics without fail. Don’t get me wrong, daily meditation and fitness are great coping mechanisms, but pressure to meditate for 30 consecutive days is often an unrealistic expectation that, when not met, could even increase anxiety. Teens can benefit instead from knowing how to identify feelings of anxiety, and take deep breaths when they feel overwhelmed.

I believe in the power of creating healthy routines in advance of a crisis, which is why I’ve created evidence-based curriculums for educators to teach kids how to care for their mental health. But, when I talk to high school and middle school students, I’m consistently struck by the number of teens who feel dejected that their mental health problems didn’t improve as soon as they started trying to address them. We live in a quick-fix society, so this response is understandable. It’s okay to feel frustrated, but too often these feelings lead to a cycle of shame that can reinforce dangerous coping mechanisms.

Even getting enough sleep — a proven factor in improved mental wellness — can be hard. A lot of teens I work with can’t naturally fall asleep until after midnight, but need to wake up between 5 and 7 a.m. to get to school on time. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2019, less than a quarter of teens were getting the recommended eight hours of sleep or more. The percentage for female students and students of color was even lower. Teens and young people increasingly face pressures that make it difficult to easily incorporate wellness routines, and economic privilege, race, and gender are all factors that impact this. For teens from lower income backgrounds, mental health interventions like private therapy or meditation classes may be inaccessible. For students of color, young women, LGBTQ+ youth, and other marginalized groups, pressure to be perfect is often intertwined with systemic oppression. These teens may feel they have to overcompensate or perform perfection, to avoid being perceived as negative stereotypes.

Instead of pretending these external factors don’t exist, we can speak more openly about the different circumstances we’re all navigating, and the trial-and-error nature of improving one’s mental health over time. Because feelings of inadequacy, shame, and overwhelm can exacerbate existing mental health issues, we should promote advice on small changes teens can make when tackling mental health, and make clear that it’s okay to be imperfect. We can start by sharing our own stories and holding space for moments where our loved ones may feel they’ve “failed” at mental wellness.

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